Zuckerberg: Facebook could be in “stronger position” after Apple tracking change

Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage during an Apple event in September 2018.
Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage during an Apple event in September 2018.

With Apple’s big app-tracking policy change just around the corner, Chinese companies drew a warning from Cupertino that their efforts to circumvent the change will not be successful. At the same time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared to shift his messaging about the change.

Several months ago, Apple announced that it will require user opt-in for IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), a tool that advertisers use to identify and track users across apps and websites. If users opt in, it will be business as usual. But if they decline, the app in question will not be able to use that tracking method. The change will apply to all iPhone and iPad apps, and it will take full effect in iOS 14.5, which is due out sometime in the next few weeks.

ByteDance, Baidu, and others push back

Press coverage of the change so far has focused on US and European countries grappling with the change, particularly Facebook, which ran ads and looked into the possibility of an antitrust lawsuit to battle Apple’s decision. Several reports over the past few days have indicated that some major Chinese tech companies are no less determined to fight or get around Apple’s new policy.

Baidu, Tencent, and ByteDance are among the Chinese tech companies seeking workarounds. Bloomberg reports that these companies have sought multiple ways to collect data and track users despite Apple’s policy, including fingerprinting, “which uses device-specific information such as the IMEI number and location to create a unique identifier.” And they are also testing a system called CAID. Developed by a government think tank and the China Advertising Association, this system can be used “as a substitute if the user’s IDFA is unavailable.”

The companies’ efforts led Apple to release a statement clarifying that the upcoming changes apply to all apps from companies around the world, not just those developed and maintained in the United States:

The App Store terms and guidelines apply equally to all developers around the world, including Apple. We believe strongly that users should be asked for their permission before being tracked. Apps that are found to disregard the user’s choice will be rejected.

The actions of these companies nonetheless threaten to put Apple in a difficult position. China accounts for at least 15 percent of Apple’s business. Although it’s too early to make absolute predictions and it depends on the role the Chinese government chooses to play here, it is plausible that this situation could escalate to the point where Apple would have to make a decision about continuing to do business there or changing course to make special ad tracking rules for that country that differ from those in place in other regions.

Zuckerberg changes tune

Speaking in a Clubhouse chat on Thursday, Zuckerberg took a more positive stance regarding Facebook’s ability to thrive with the upcoming change. “We’ll be in a good position,” he said. “We’ll be able to manage through.”

Facebook had previously run full-page newspaper ads suggesting Apple’s change could mortally wound countless small businesses, and Facebook CFO David Wehner posited last year that the change would lead to a 50% drop for its lucrative Audience Network advertising business.

Zuckerberg also took an aggressive initial stance against the change in the company’s last quarterly earnings call, and The Information reported that he was working with legal counsel to build an antitrust case against Apple as a way to battle the policy shift.

But yesterday, Zuckerberg went so far as to say:

It’s possible that we may even be in a stronger position if Apple’s changes encourage more businesses to conduct more commerce on our platforms by making it harder for them to use their data in order to find the customers that would want to use their products outside of our platforms.

While the messaging differs, the companies’ planned actions don’t seem likely to change. Apple will still begin requiring Facebook’s apps ask users for permission to track them, and Facebook still plans on acquiescing to the change so it can keep making its apps and services available to iOS users.