Just imagine what would happen, though, if federal privacy laws akin to the GDPR went into effect governing information practices, and then enforced by the federal government. Facebook would be much more limited in the type of data that it could collect, and how it could use it. Before any data was shared with a third party (i.e. an advertiser), Facebook would likely have to get your permission. And Facebook would also have to make it much easier to hide social profiles entirely from potential advertisers.
For that reason, it’s easy to see how Tim Cook’s remarks need to be evaluated in a more nuanced way. It’s not that he suddenly “got religion” and became a data privacy convert. That might be part of the story, but it’s easy to see that his direct calling out of the “data industrial complex” was really done for business and strategic purposes. Plus, if you’re giving a keynote speech to an audience at a data privacy conference, what else can you really say? For their part, both Facebook and Google delivered comments via video (but not live in person) at the event, with both showing at least tepid support for strict federal privacy laws.
As Colin Bastable of Lucy Security points out, Apple CEO Tim Cook had a very clear strategic goal for his keynote speech, “Tim Cook takes a break from virtue signaling to throw rocks at Google and Facebook, because he wants to position himself and Apple as the good guys whilst the others are vulnerable. His message is right, but Apple is also part of the problem. These players hold massive quantities of data, and we should never assume that they will ever have our best interests at heart.”
That viewpoint was echoed by Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with Comparitech.com: “I think it’s important to put his words into context. Apple can ride a moral high horse when it comes to privacy because it does not primarily depend upon targeted advertising and the collection and sharing of personal data to make money. Most of its competitors do, namely Google. Advocating for privacy laws is a practical way for Apple to indirectly lobby against Google.”
Are federal privacy laws coming in 2019?
Perhaps the big takeaway lesson from all this is that the big Silicon Valley giants have resigned themselves to the fact that more regulation is coming, and they’d better get out in front of it. The goal here, of course, is to weaken any federal privacy laws that might go on the books, and the way to do that is by helping to shape public opinion. If the likes of Facebook and Google can convince the American public that federal privacy laws will have a chilling effect on free speech, innovation and the American way of life, then that might be a way to cool down some of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C. these days. At the very least, the big tech giants are hopeful that federal privacy laws will be more lenient than regulation currently being prepared in states like California.
Along the way, of course, there will certainly be compromises. As Paul Bischoff of Comparitech points out, regulators need to take a big picture view of the situation: “I think we’d all like to see a world in which our personal details weren’t treated as currency by corporations. But we also want affordable devices. Targeted advertising helps subsidize cheap Android smartphones, which improves Internet penetration among many people in the world who can’t afford iPhones. That includes many developing nations where many people access the World Wide Web for the first time via budget Android smartphones. To take budget devices out of the market because they don’t align with Cook’s vision of privacy law seems cruel to me. The law should strike a balance between these two business models and remain skeptical of both sides’ profit motives.”
With just two months to go until the end of the year, and plenty of attention being diverted to the midterm elections in November, it’s unlikely anything will change in 2018 when it comes to privacy law. But comments similar to the ones that Apple CEO Tim Cook made in Brussels will surely play a role in shaping the narrative headed into 2019. If personal information really has been weaponized, as Cook suggests, then there is sure to be a big push to take away those weapons over the next 12 months.