The ad follows Ellie, who stumbles on an auction where different pieces of her online data are being auctioned off. First, her emails, including “ones she’s opened and read.” Next, her drugstore purchases, her location, her text messages, her contacts, and her browsing history.
The ad–as absurd as it may seem on the surface–makes a point. The internet as we know it was built to track every one of those things
. Almost every website, app, search engine, and social platform is collecting data about your activity and using it to show you personalized ads.
Personalized ads aren’t necessarily bad. The internet was mostly built with money from advertisers. Many of the websites and services people use every day are possible because of digital advertising, and it’s arguably better that if you’re going to see ads, those ads be relevant.
The problem is that most of the internet–the part built on personalized ads–is kind of creepy when you think about all of the tracking necessary to know what is relevant to you. For years, internet platforms got away with it. Facebook and Google,
for example, were able to track users mostly without them knowing at all, and certainly without asking for permission.
Ellie is surprised to find out just how much data about her is being collected and auctioned off, as I’m sure many of us would be. That’s because the companies that track, collect, and auction off your data don’t want you to think about what they’re doing. Why? Because they know most people would rather the internet not track everything they do.
If you were on the fence about that, look no further than Facebook’s revelation that Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature, which was released with iOS 14.5
, will cost the company as much as $10 billion in revenue this year.
When given a choice, people opt out of tracking.
In the ad, Ellie does just that, pulling out her iPhone and shutting down the auction with ATT and Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection features. The point of the ad isn’t just Apple throwing pretty much every other tech company under the bus–it’s offering an alternative.
Obviously, Apple wants to highlight its own privacy-related features. It is, after all, an ad. That’s the point–to sell you more iPhones with those features. You can agree with Apple’s viewpoint on privacy or you can argue it’s self-serving, but you can’t fault Apple for having an opinion about privacy and then talking about the features it built to give users more control.
By the way, Apple’s biggest opinion isn’t that there should be no personalized ads or that all ad tracking is bad. It’s just that people should have a choice. If a developer wants to build an app that collects your personal information and shares it with Facebook, that’s fine, it just has to ask your permission first.
That’s actually a powerful lesson for every company. If you’re building a product or service that depends on collecting user information and targeted ads, you have to be honest about that and give those users a choice.
If your business model depends on users having no idea what you’re doing with their personal information, you’re doing it wrong. You owe it to them to be transparent about the real cost of the products you sell them, especially when that cost is their personal information. If you won’t, it looks like Apple will.