- Apple frequently touts its privacy protections in ads and marketing materials.
- The Department of Justice's antitrust lawsuit against Google highlighted how much the search giant pays Apple to be the default on its devices.
- Apple receives around $10 billion to funnel search traffic, making up half of Google's overall traffic.
- Apple's position on privacy is hard to square with the amount of money it makes sending its users information to Google, a company that has a very different view on how that data is used.
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Apple isn't shy about pointing out the difference between the way it treats your personal information and the way most of its big tech competitors do. Unlike much of that competition, Apple doesn't make money by targeting you with ads.
Instead, Apple makes premium-priced devices and gives users the promise of a better experience, along with better privacy. Apple's most loyal customers have long been willing to pay more because they value what Apple promises. They value that Apple promises to be different.
And, for the most part, that's actually true. There are any number of ways Apple is different. Apple's privacy page makes a point of the fact that the company doesn't collect data on its users for the purpose of displaying ads. It also says it limits the data it uses for providing other services, like showing you the local weather, only collecting your approximate location since weather tends to be the same within a few blocks or a neighborhood. Finally, Apple processes Siri interactions on your device as much as possible, as opposed to sending every request to the cloud.
It's also a strong advocate of device encryption, as well as end-to-end encryption in messaging. The company has famously resisted attempts by the government to force it to unlock devices, even in the case of criminal investigations, on the premise that not even Apple can crack the encryption it uses to protect your information.
Apple has also pushed back hard on calls for tech companies to include the ability for law enforcement to have a backdoor key to unlock encrypted devices. Tim Cook has made a point on many occasions of saying that Apple believes "privacy is a fundamental human right." It's literally the first sentence on the company's privacy page.
That page also promises that the company designs products "to protect your privacy and give you control over your information." It goes on to list the number of ways Apple's products are built to do things like block third-party tracking online, minimize data collection, and protect your location data.
The company even recently produced a lighthearted ad to highlight its focus on privacy. That focus is at the core of what Apple says it values.
There's a problem, however, because it turns out that the promise only goes so far.
Apple designs iPhones to use Google as the default search engine. The deal between the two companies, revealed as a result of the Department of Justice's recent antitrust lawsuit against Google, reportedly represents as much as 20% of Apple's profit, around $10 billion a year. It also represents half of Google's US site traffic.
That's a big problem, not because Google is necessarily bad, but because Apple is feeding an enormous amount of customer data into Google — in exchange for a lot of cash.
It's not really a surprise that every time you type a search into Google, it uses that information to show you ads related to your search. Google saves that information about you, and over time, uses it to show you more ads. That alone doesn't make Google bad, but it does have a very different view of privacy than the one Apple preaches.
Try this: Type a few words into the Safari URL bar on your iPhone. By default, you end up on Google's search results page. You see Google's ads.
Then, open the Google app on the same device. Notice anything about what appears at the top? Or, how about if you open any browser on your desktop computer and go to Google's homepage. When you click on the search bar field, everything you've previously searched for pops up.
Of course, this happens because you're logged into Google, which means Google is saving all of that search information. Apple, which says it values your privacy, is sending all of that information about you to a company that has a very different value for it, to the tune of more than $120 billion a year in revenue.
It isn't uncommon for companies that compete fiercely in one area to partner in another when it serves their common interests. For example, Microsoft and Google are fierce competitors in cloud services, productivity tools, and in search. Yet, if you buy a new Surface Duo device, not only does it come with Android installed, you'll find a giant Google Search bar on the home screen. Bing is nowhere to be found.
That's because Google gives away Android for free, and in exchange requires manufacturers to include the Google Play Store and the search bar on the devices as the default. Microsoft, in turn, saves the expense of having to develop its own mobile operating system, something it hasn't exactly had much success with anyway.
Certainly that's the case here. Google benefits from the massive amount of traffic driven by iPhone users. Apple benefits from the $10 billion or so that Google is paying for that traffic.
What's less common, at least in terms of a company like Apple, is that it would engage in a deal that so obviously goes against the very values it says are important. It's hard to square a promise to "design Apple products to protect your privacy" when they are literally designed in a way that makes Google the default search engine.
Apple could have made Duck Duck Go or Microsoft's Bing search engine the default. Both have arguably far better privacy protections, even if they aren't necessarily better search engines. You could say that Apple wouldn't want to make either the default if Google is actually better. We can discuss that another time, but I suspect the more likely reason is that Google's simply willing to pay more.
And that's a very big problem for Apple's brand.
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