Face the Critic: Ian Betteridge Edition

Ian Betteridge, quoting yours truly on non-consensual tracking back in 2020 and then my piece yesterday on the EDPB issuing an opinion against Meta’s “Pay or OK” model in the EU:

I wonder what happened to turn John’s attitude from “no action Apple can take against the tracking industry is too strong” to defending Facebook’s “right” to choose how it invades people’s privacy? Or is he suggesting that a private company is entitled to defend people’s privacy, but governments are not?

I’ve seen a bit of pushback along this line recently, more or less asking: How come I was against Meta’s tracking but now seem for it? I don’t see any contradiction or change in my position though. The only thing I’d change in the 2020 piece Betteridge quotes is this sentence, which Betteridge emphasizes: “No action Apple can take against the tracking industry is too strong.” I should have inserted an adjective before “tracking” — it’s non-consensual tracking I object to, especially tracking that’s downright surreptitious. Not tracking in and of itself.

That’s why I remain a staunch supporter of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, and consider it a success. Apple didn’t ban the use of the IDFA for cross-app tracking, and they were correct not to. They simply now require consent. If I had believed that all tracking was ipso facto wrong, I’d have been opposed to ATT on the grounds that it offers the “Allow” choice.

Also from 2020, I quoted Steve Jobs on privacy:

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English, and repeatedly. That’s what it means. I’m an optimist, I believe people are smart. And some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.

That’s what ATT does. And that’s what’s Meta’s “Pay or OK” model in the EU does. It offers users a clear fair choice: Use Facebook and Instagram free of charge with targeted ads, or pay a reasonable monthly fee for an ad-free experience. No less than Margrethe Vestager herself, back in 2018, was keen on this idea:

My concern is more about whether we get the right choices. I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy. It is a provoking thought after all the Facebook scandal. This market is not being explored.

Now Meta is “exploring” that market, but the European Commission doesn’t like the results, because it turns out that when given the clear choice, the overwhelming majority of EU denizens prefer to use Meta’s platforms free-of-charge with targeted ads.

The best aspects of the EU’s digital privacy laws are those that give people the right to know what data is being collected, where it’s being stored, who it’s being shared with, etc. That’s all fantastic. But the worst aspect is the paternalism. The EU is correct to require that users be required to provide consent before being tracked across properties. And Apple is correct for protecting unique device IDFA identifiers behind a mandatory “Ask App Not to Track / Allow” consent alert. But Jobs was right too: people are smart, and they can — and should be allowed to — make their own decisions. And many people are more comfortable with sharing data than others. The privacy zealots leading this crusade in the EU do not think people are smart, and do not think they should be trusted to make these decisions for themselves.

I don’t like Meta as a company. If a corporation can be smarmy, Meta is that. And they’ve done a lot of creepy stuff over the years, and for a long while clearly acted as though they were entitled to track whatever they could get away with technically. I suspect they thought that if they asked for consent, or made clear what and how they tracked, that users would revolt. But it turns out billions of people who enjoy Meta’s platforms are fine with the deal.

It’s obviously the case that for some people, Meta’s past transgressions are unforgivable. That’s each person’s decision to make for themselves. Me, I believe in mercy. Again, I still don’t really like the company, by and large. But Threads is pretty good. And sometimes, when I occasionally check in, Instagram can still make me smile. It’s very clear what I’m sharing with Meta when I use those apps, and I’m fine with that. If you’re not, don’t use them. (I’ve still never created a Facebook blue app account, and still feel like I haven’t missed out on a damn thing.)

To sum up my stance: Tracking is wrong when it’s done without consent, and when users have no idea what’s being tracked or how it’s being used. Tracking is fine when it’s done with consent, and users know what’s being tracked and how it’s being used. Privacy doesn’t mean never being tracked. It means never being tracked without clear consent. I think Meta is now largely, if not entirely, on the right side of this.

It’s paternalistic — infantilizing even — to believe that government bureaucrats should take these decisions out of the hands of EU citizens. Me, I trust people to decide for themselves. The current European Commission regime is clearly of the belief that all tracking is wrong, regardless of consent. That’s a radical belief that is not representative of the public. The government’s proper role is to ensure people can make an informed choice, and that they have control over their own data. That’s what I thought four years ago, and it’s what I think now.