In a thirteen-minute speech Tuesday morning at the Global Privacy Summit, Tim Cook reiterated the company’s belief that “privacy is a fundamental human right.” Most people would agree that Apple has long been a champion of privacy, and the company takes every opportunity it can to highlight the difference between itself and its tech peers like Facebook and Google.
This speech was different, however. If you listened to Cook’s speech, however, it was clear there’s another point the high-profile CEO of the world’s most valuable, and arguably most powerful company feels just as strongly about.
I think it’s worth unpacking because it turns out there’s a lesson here for everyone who builds a product or runs a business. In fact, it’s one of those lessons that seems so obvious but is so easy to miss.
Cook talked about steps Apple has taken to protect user privacy, like requiring developers to request permission before tracking users across different apps and websites. He also reaffirmed that the company is strongly opposed to encryption backdoors.
Cook then explained that Apple believes security and privacy are related. “We’ve long said that security is the foundation of privacy because there is no privacy in a world where your private data can be stolen with impunity,” Cook said, pointing out the rise of “sophisticated hackers and ransomware gangs.”
Then, Cook shifted to what he described as another “area of concern.”
Here in Washington and elsewhere, policymakers are taking steps in the name of competition that would force Apple to let apps on the iPhone that circumvent the App Store through a process called sideloading. That means data-hungry companies will be able to avoid our privacy rules and once again track our users against their will. It would also potentially give bad actors a way around the comprehensive security protections we’ve put in place putting them in direct contact with our users.
Apple isn’t wrong about the privacy threat to users. There are definitely companies that have built their entire business on collecting user data, without giving those users much of a choice. The problem is–to many observers–it seems the company has a habit of using that threat as a justification to reinforce its own control over the App Store. Especially when it comes to sideloading.
I’m not sure Apple has made the case that sideloading is a privacy issue. Cook made the argument that it’s a security concern, and therefore user privacy is at risk. I think that’s technically true, but I think the reality is that almost no one would use sideloading even if they could.
Okay, fine, there are probably a few. Since the very first iPhone, people have been finding ways to get around the restrictions of iOS. Most people, however, are never going to go through the enormous hassle Apple would make it to download third-party apps directly. People buy an iPhone because “it just works,” and most users aren’t interested in anything that makes it more complex.
I’m not even sure that any of the “data-hungry companies” Cook warns about would opt out of the App Store and force users to download their apps directly. Just look at Android. You’ve been allowed to install third-party apps directly for years, but basically, nobody does.
Even Epic Games, which sued Apple and Google over their App Store policies admitted that the number of people who install Fortnite directly is very small. Still, Apple insists that sideloading would be a nightmare for iPhone users.
“We are deeply concerned about regulations that would undermine privacy and security and service of some other aim,” Cook said. The thing is, Apple’s absolutist position on restricting app installation to the iOS App Store starts to look like the company itself might have another aim.
I think Apple makes great products–in many cases, the best in class. I think the people who lead the company are incredibly smart and capable. I just think they might be missing the more obvious lesson here.
Someone, somewhere at Apple surely has a spreadsheet and has gamed out what they think the company might lose in terms of in-app purchases due to side loading. I can’t imagine the number is very large, but Apple sure seems worried about it. As a result, the company is taking a hard line against something that seems both relatively insignificant and also a foregone conclusion.
I don’t imagine any company wants to be regulated, but Apple’s hard line seems to increase the chances it will happen. It seems like there’s a better way.
The irony is, Cook actually made this very point. “Those of us who create technology and make the rules that govern it have a profound responsibility to the people we serve,” Cook said. “Let us embrace this responsibility.”
While he was referring to what he suggests are the unintended consequences of proposed antitrust laws, the same could be said for Apple. The tricky part is defining that responsibility.
I would argue that it doesn’t mean telling users what is best for them. It doesn’t mean controlling how they use a device because it’s a scary world out there and they might go on the internet and bad things might happen. Instead, it means doing the right thing to the best you are able, even if it isn’t your preferred outcome.
That’s true for every company. You are responsible for what you build. That responsibility includes not just protecting users and their data, but also providing them with the experience they want. It means understanding what they want, not assuming you already know. That’s challenging when the thing your users want goes against what you think is best, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have the same responsibility to the people you serve.