Apple chief executive Tim Cook launched a stinging attack on ad-based social networks such as Facebook on Thursday, arguing that such platforms were responsible for real-world violence and dehumanising consumers.
The comments on Thursday came a day after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg accused Apple of “regularly” using its dominance to preference its own products, in an escalating war of words between the two companies.
Speaking at an event called Data Privacy Day in Brussels, Mr Cook did not mention any company by name.
However, he said that “at a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement.”
“It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cost — of polarisation, of lost trust and, yes, of violence,” he added, in an apparent allusion to the Capitol riots in Washington.
Facebook, in particular, has faced scrutiny for its role in facilitating organisers of the attempted insurrection, as well as for its perceived failure to stem the spread of misinformation about the US election result. Twitter and Google’s YouTube have also attracted criticism.
The recent tensions between Apple and Facebook began last year when the iPhone maker announced it was introducing a new feature called App Tracking Transparency, which compels app developers to ask users for permission to track them across apps to create personalised ads. The move is set to dent Facebook’s advertising business and that of its customers.
On Wednesday, Mr Zuckerberg accused Apple on the company’s earnings call with analysts of wielding its “dominant platform position to interfere with how our app and other apps work”.
Meanwhile, Facebook has been preparing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and weighing whether to invite other companies to join, according to a report in The Information published on Thursday. A spokesperson for the social network declined to comment on the matter, but reiterated the company’s claims that Apple is “behaving anti-competitively”.
The critique from Apple, which on Wednesday reported a record $111bn of revenue last quarter, also applied to Google, Snapchat and players in the adtech industry. Mr Cook noted the average smartphone app contains “an average of six trackers” to “surveil and identify users across apps, watching and recording their behaviour”.
He added: “Users may not know whether the apps they use to pass the time, to check in with their friends, or to find a place to eat, may in fact be passing on information about the photos they’ve taken, the people in their contact list, or location data that reflects where they eat, sleep or pray.”
Apple’s director of global privacy, Jane Horvath, said in a separate panel that the group would like the US to adopt a federal privacy law — modelled after Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation that came into effect in 2018.
She said society had reached “an inflection point” in which people had to decide whether trading privacy for “free” services was worth the cost.
“Some say that advertising may suffer without all of that data,” she said. “We reject that you can’t reset the privacy paradigm and still have a robust advertising ecosystem.”