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Apple v. Facebook: After years of tension, a legal battle looms

Apple said on Thursday it was speeding up plans to give users the ability to stop apps from tracking their data across the web.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Customers walk past an Apple logo inside of an Apple store at Grand Central Station in New York
The Apple store at Grand Central Station in New York on Aug. 1, 2018.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

Facebook and Apple may be on the verge of a legal war.

The two tech giants, whose animosity for each other goes back at least a decade, are now embroiled in an escalating fight over data privacy and market power that could potentially end up in court.

Apple said Thursday that it was speeding up plans to give users the ability to stop apps from tracking their data across the web. The changes, which will go into effect this spring, will directly affect Facebook's lucrative advertising business by curtailing its ability to collect data on some Apple users.

But while Apple is touting the move as a win for user privacy, Facebook sees it as an abuse of market power.

In recent months, Facebook has been building an antitrust lawsuit that accuses Apple of using its App Store to disadvantage competitors, said three people at Facebook who were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter, confirming a report from The Information.

“As we have said repeatedly, we believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses," Facebook spokesperson Ashley Zandy said when asked for comment on the lawsuit.

While it's not guaranteed that Facebook will proceed with the lawsuit, the fact that they are preparing for a legal battle highlights just how intense the long-standing feud has become.

That tension dates to at least 2010, when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs appeared on stage at a conference and, with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the audience, drew a sharp distinction between his company's view of privacy and that of "some of our colleagues" in Silicon Valley.

Jobs, who died a year later, stressed the importance of asking users for permission to collect their data.

"I believe people are smart, and some people want to share more data than other people do," he said. "Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data."

Jobs’ statement presaged Apple's new policy, and Apple used it in its promotional materials during Thursday's announcement.

Tensions between Apple and Facebook have ebbed and flowed over the last decade, but flared up again in 2018 after Apple CEO Tim Cook started warning of a "data industrial complex," and of the danger of people losing control over their data to companies that trade and sell it for profit.

Cook reiterated that warning Thursday at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection Conference and then took several not-so-thinly veiled shots at Facebook and other services that prioritize user engagement over user privacy — even going so far as to fault them for stoking "polarization, lost trust and ... violence."

"At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye," he said. "The social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe."

Meanwhile, Facebook has been steadily building its case against Apple. Last August, the social media giant joined Epic Games and other companies in accusing the iPhone maker of hurting small businesses with its long-standing 30 percent in-app commission fee. Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, has already filed an antitrust suit against Apple.

All of this comes as Apple and Facebook are under antitrust scrutiny in Washington from the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.