Facebook’s new advertisement – “Good Ideas Deserve To Be Found” – is a study in audacity, in which the company wraps its darkest arts in a cloak of moral purity.
Facebook tracks its users’ behaviour, not only on its own apps but all across the web. What it learns about you in the process, it sells as finely targeted advertising. Facebook’s product has never really been its stable of apps and websites. It is you.
For this to work, Facebook needs its users to either not know, or not care, that their data is harvested and sold this way. To date, the approach has been successful, to say the least. In 2019, Facebook sold $69.7bn worth of advertising, accounting for 98 per cent of the company’s revenue.
The audacity of Facebook’s new advertising is to claim it does all this in pursuit of some higher ideal. The purpose of Facebook’s snooping, we are told, is to help small businesses bring their bright ideas to a waiting world. Those gargantuan revenues are beside the point.
That Facebook felt compelled to attempt so audacious an argument is a sign of the fear that exists there today. The reason resides in the offices of a Californian neighbour: Apple.
Updates to Apple’s operating systems rarely break news outside of the more esoteric publications, but their most recent one should. With the launch of iOS14, Apple users will be given a choice: whether they would like Facebook to shadow them across the web, or whether they would rather they didn’t.
Facebook is naturally worried that, given the choice, any sensible person would choose the latter.
Their latest advert is only the most recent salvo in a months long attempt to stop us from ever being offered the choice. Late last year, Facebook took out full-page advertisements in a number of US newspapers, arguing that it is “standing up to Apple” on behalf of “small businesses everywhere.” It is said to be considering an antitrust lawsuit too.
Meanwhile, a war of words has broken out between the billionaire CEOs of the two companies, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Tim Cook of Apple. In a speech in January, Cook launched a thinly disguised broadside against Facebook’s business practices. “A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe,” he said, alluding to a polemical, recent documentary exposing how social networks work.
In his most recent quarterly update to investors, Zuckerberg hit back, publicly questioning the true motivation behind Apple’s recent statements. Ignoring the obvious irony of Zuckerberg’s attack, he was right. Just like Facebook, Apple has wrapped its actions in an inflated sense of moral purpose. Cook claims that Apple’s iOS update is an attempt to protect its customers’ privacy. But few believe that undermining the business model of one of its fiercest competitors is merely incidental.
Zuckerberg is wrong, however, to think this matters much. When companies claim they are acting in our interests, we know that there is a touch of duplicity in the air. No-one, after all, thinks Apple is a charity. But we are willing to accept a whiff of duplicity when we believe it serves us.
This is where Facebook and Apple differ. I have no doubt that Facebook’s advertising services help small businesses. But that is a fig leaf that cannot cover the fact that they do so at Facebook users’ expense. There is no argument that can effectively justify not giving customers the choice to be pursued across the web by Facebook’s all seeing eye.
As long as Facebook continues to set its interests against its users, it will walk a perilous path. Its best solution may be the one it has long avoided: paying users for their data. Facebook makes $30 from each of its users each year. It may at last be time it paid us a little for all that it has harvested.