Apple Backs Down on iOS 14 Ad Privacy After Backlash from Facebook and Game Developers

iOS 14 Ad Tracking Prompt Credit: Jesse Hollington
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In a rare move for the iPhone maker, it looks like Apple may be planning to hold back on one of its new iOS 14 privacy features in the face of industry pressure.

Even more than in prior years, Apple has chocked iOS 14 full of innovative new privacy features, but there’s one in particular that’s been making several big tech companies nervous pretty much since Apple first unveiled it: requiring users to opt in to ad tracking.

The move is one that was heralded by privacy advocates and consumers alike for helping to reduce the myriad ways in which advertisers and other companies track user behaviour online, but naturally it’s also something that’s making many of those advertisers quite nervous, since it has the potential to seriously affect their bottom line, and to be fair, they’ve also had almost no time to adjust to the change either.

As we reported earlier this year, there’s no doubt that the move stands to usher in a whole new era of mobile ads, and companies are ultimately going to need to adapt to the new reality that many users find it creepy when they see an ad on Facebook for a product that they just searched for on Amazon, and in turn the advertisers and other big tech companies will just have to find new ways to deal with it.

In the short term, however, companies are definitely not happy about it, and Apple has been getting a lot of pushback from companies like Facebook who are suggesting that the move could actually cut their advertising revenue in half.

Identifier for Advertisers

What’s behind this whole discussion is a little thing called an IDFA, or the Identifier for Advertisers, which is basically a unique ID that your devices hand off for every ad that gets displayed on it. This allows advertisers to track which ads you’ve seen, and in doing so build up a profile of your interests. To be clear, the IDFA doesn’t personally identify you in any way by name, although many would argue that the profile, or “interest graph” that’s being built on you can still be quite personal.

In iOS 14, Apple wasn’t planning on getting rid of the IDFA entirely, but it did say that whenever an app or website requested the IDFA, users would be shown a permission dialog asking them to either “Allow Tracking” or “Ask App Not to Track,” displayed in much the same way as iOS requests access to everything else from location services and Bluetooth to health data, contacts, and photos.

It’s actually been possible for iOS users to disable the IDFA since at least iOS 10 using a “Limit Ad Tracking” switch that was buried in the iPhone Privacy settings, however many users didn’t even know it was there, and only the most privacy-conscious ones ever really bothered to go looking for it (the switch has actually been around even longer, but prior to iOS 10 it didn’t actually disable the IDFA — it just politely asked advertisers not to use it, and of course not everybody respected that in quite the same way).

The more pointed approach being taken by iOS 14, however, means that many more users are likely to opt out of IDFA ad tracking by default, since they’ll be presented with a prompt asking them if they want to allow it, and many will simply see the word “tracking” and automatically err on the side of caution.

Basically, it’s a move that could stand to make the IDFA virtually useless to advertisers — at least those targeting iPhone and iPad users — and Apple has gotten so much negative feedback from these groups that it’s actually already told some developers that it may delay the enforcement of the feature, although it’s not entirely yet clear what it means by that.

Delayed But Not Abandoned

According to The Information, Apple has been collecting feedback from a number of third parties, most notably game developers, about the huge negative impact that the sudden introduction of the anti-ad tracking feature may have on their bottom line — businesses that are otherwise expected to bring in up to $76 billion from mobile ads this year alone.

The report notes that Apple’s App Store team actually canvassed several key game developers to get some feedback on how the change might affect them, including Activision Blizzard, Supercell, and N3twork, and the reversal of course seems to have come primarily as a result of these discussions, which may not be surprising considering that Apple itself has some skin in the game here.

While most advertising concerns such as those raised by Facebook don’t really affect Apple’s bottom line, the revenue from game developers most certainly could, as freemium games rely heavily on mobile ad spending, and of course those freemium games also generate a lot of revenue for Apple, thanks to the 30 percent cut it gets from in-app purchases made in those games.

Developers who spoke to The Information also made it clear that they’ve had virtually no time to prepare for this new policy, nor has Apple offered them any alternative way of targeting ads. Ad industry analyst Eric Seufert also told The Information that it “simply wasn’t possible for developers to adapt their advertising infrastructure” in time, and called delaying enforcement of the new privacy feature “the right thing for Apple to do.”

All of that having been said, it’s still not clear what Apple delaying “enforcement” of the feature means, but whatever the case, it’s clear that it hasn’t scrapped its plans.

Instead, it’s realized that perhaps it acted precipitously in introducing the new feature with such little notice in the first place and that it simply needs to give developers and mobile ad companies more time to adjust to the change and come up with alternative solutions. The Information seems to think that it could return by the time iOS 15 is released next year.

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