FAANG Go to War

Apple was the instigator, and the fire has been fueled by two explosive books about Facebook’s abhorrent behavior–‘Zucked by Roger McNamee–and about the exploitative nature of the free internet in general–Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. The battle lines have been drawn, and Apple and Microsoft are unofficially allied against Google, Facebook, especially, and, to a lesser extent, Amazon. Let’s examine this battle two ways: idealistically and cynically.

Let’s start with the idealistic view. Not too many years ago, Apple went so far as to incorporate a Facebook share button into OS X and iOS! With one click, one could share anything on Facebook: text, pictures, zip file, Word document, mp3 file, you name it. With Facebook’s ascendancy and the emergence of numerous accounts of Facebook’s abuse of its users, Apple started declaring that privacy is a human right, eliminated the Facebook share buttons from all operating systems and made it nearly impossible to share anything on Facebook. In its current incarnation, MacOS Catalina’s draconian safety rules make it nearly impossible for Facebook to extract any information from the user’s device. As it is, convenient sharing of files with Facebook requires that the user nearly hack his or her own device. The same goes for data collection by other web sites, apps, and macOS software. Apple is enforcing such a brutal regime of data privacy and security, that small develops are complaining that they might go out of business! Apple is committed to privacy. Now Microsoft is joining Apple’s commitment to privacy.

The cynical spectacle of economic exigency, however, reveals another powerful undercurrent at work: preservation of profits. The masterful means by which Facebook and Google have turned every web browser, smart phone app and “personal assistant” into a data trawling device infuriates the manufacturers of these devices because they do not appreciate becoming enslaved to the “social media” companies. Samsung, for example, is absolutely furious that Facebook and Google make most of the profits from its smartphones. The brewing battle, therefore, is between hardware and software, and privacy has become a marketing–and very real!–fulcrum.

Apple makes the vast majority of profits from smart phones already, but it is concerned that the monetization of user attention data by “social media” will eat into these profits. Consequently, it is using privacy–a very legitimate concern–to drive people away from Facebook and Google. Similarly, social media and social media-like services like Slack threaten Microsoft in two ways. First, like Apple, social media siphon away profits that Microsoft could earn from its Windows platform, and, second, social media threaten the security of the Windows platform by opening a massive channel through which malicious agents can breach Microsoft’s firewalls. It is in Apple’s and Microsoft’s interest, therefore, to battle businesses that siphon user data because such practices threaten their profits and the security of their platforms. Given that Microsoft’s software literally runs the world’s businesses, any breach of security would be catastrophic for its business and reputation.

Apple and Microsoft are, therefore, leveraging their massive and steady revenue streams from their hardware, software, business services and streaming businesses to undermine the data siphoning business model. Facebook and Google have no such revenue stream and are vulnerable to any changes in user behavior, platform (Windows or MacOS) restrictions or regulatory measures that limit user data collection. This is why Facebook and Google are desperately trying to enter the hardware businesses in order to secure data gathering operations that cannot be controlled by Apple or Microsoft. Apple’s removal of the Facebook share option from its operating systems was the event that forced Facebook to redouble its efforts to circumvent the computer and the smartphone. The Google, Facebook and Amazon “personal assistants”, readers, streaming sticks and smartphones are just that: data trawling hardware that circumvent Apple’s and Microsoft’s operating systems.

In essence, therefore, this is nothing but a fierce, brutal battle among leviathans to protect profits, but strangely enough, privacy hangs in the balance. It is incumbent upon the user, therefore, to choose wisely. In this incredibly bizarre world of unregulated technology giants, the user must choose wisely. For now, even Jaron Lanier states in his Ten Arguments book that the safest bets for the user are Apple and Microsoft because they remain the only companies who are explicitly assuring user anonymity and who are insisting on the fee-for-service business model instead of the user monetization model of Facebook, Google, Amazon and many others. Until regulations define our digital rights, our best protection is insisting on the fee-for-service model, insisting on Apple and Microsoft.

It is of paramount importance that in choosing Apple and Microsoft that we remember that there are no heroes in this game!

Full disclosure: I own stock in both Apple and Microsoft. I have held Apple for about 15 years. I purchased Microsoft just recently when I became convinced that they are committed to data privacy.

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