Since Apple announced its new anti-ad-tracking privacy protection measures last year, Facebook has been its number one opponent. While Google has put on a public appearance of being more neutral and detached on the issue, an update to an ongoing lawsuit has revealed that it has quietly been working behind the scenes with Facebook to circumvent these protections to continue tracking users of the Safari web browser in efforts that may date back to 2020.
Google more active against Apple privacy protection measures than previously known
The Apple Safari web browser is the default on the company’s devices and computers. It is used by the overwhelming majority of Apple’s customers; studies have estimated that as many as 93% do not venture away from the pre-installed browser, and those that do largely go to Google’s Chrome.
Apple app developers are no longer allowed to use each device’s unique IDFA number for ad tracking without the end user’s express permission, which is collected via a mandatory standardized pop-up during app installation and updates. Lacking a way around that new requirement, Google and Facebook appear to be targeting the web browser that nearly all Apple users default to when browsing the internet.
The complaint alleges that the two companies are sharing information on their SDKs, integrating them to pass identifying cookie data between their internet-spanning advertising networks. This ability is activated when a user that is blocking cookies in Safari is picked up by the Facebook network; Facebook can draw information from Google instead in an attempt to persistently identify the user.
Antitrust lawsuit reveals behind-the-scenes plans
The information stems from a December 2020 lawsuit filed by 38 state attorneys general against Google, claiming that the search giant colluded with Facebook to rig the results of advertising auctions. Both companies use a real-time auction system that allows marketers to bid on the display of their ads to certain specific demographics. The lawsuit’s initial focus was on bid price fixing via information sharing between the two tech giants, but legal discovery apparently has unearthed further plotting between the two to specifically work around Apple’s user privacy protections.
The new information comes from an amended complaint filed on October 22, which 12 of the original state attorneys general have signed on to. In addition to the apparent attack on Apple’s privacy protection methods, the updated complaint makes some other new claims about potential collusion between the two companies to drive up the price of targeted ads. Google and Facebook have both issued statements denying the charges and vowing to fight the claims in court.
While Apple’s recent privacy protections for its devices focus on stopping marketers from surreptitiously using device IDFAs and preventing the use of device fingerprinting methods as an alternative, it has also focused on beefing up Safari security in recent years. In addition to attempting to sidestep the use of the IDFA, Google and Facebook’s technique is also aimed at defeating Apple’s Intelligent Tracking 2.0 system. Added to Safari in 2018, the technology forces websites to request an opt-in when attempting to deploy cookies and automatically removes stored cookies from the device after 30 days of not visiting the site(s) that issued them. With macOS Big Sur, users can also view detailed data on what trackers a website makes use of and which of those have been blocked from following the user in the prior 30 days.
This new revelation will almost certainly fuel speculation about Apple’s long-term plans to get into the search engine game, a topic that heated up recently after a leading RBC Capital Markets investment analyst told clients to expect Apple to challenge Google in this area under the guise of rolling out user privacy protections. The two companies currently have a business arrangement that makes Google the default search engine on Apple’s devices, something Google reportedly pays billions of dollars per year for.
The issue adds on to a growing pile of antitrust concerns for both companies, which extend beyond its partnerships in the realm of advertising. The FTC brought a monopoly lawsuit against Facebook that was dismissed by a judge in June, but the ruling left open the possibility of a second attempt if better evidence can be presented. Congress also introduced five bills over the summer that were expressly aimed at increased regulation and limiting the market power of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, both Apple and its current opponents included. And Facebook has already initiated legal action against Apple over the new App Store privacy protection changes, claiming that the terms are unfair to third-party app developers that cannot compete with Apple’s own pre-installed products and rely on targeted advertising to fund their products.