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Above all, this stance reflects a relentless business strategy of differentiation aimed at generating fresh revenues in the highly competitive advertising market, the ‘victims’ of which are Facebook (Meta) and Google (Alphabet). This commitment to privacy is not without its critics, however, given some of the concessions made by the group, particularly those to China.
Personal data is worth its weight in gold, and its exploitation represents a major Big Data market, with a value estimated at around USD 277 billion in 2019. The data economy is expected to be worth USD 400 billion by 2025, according to the same estimates. Its protagonists are mainly social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), search engines including Alphabet, application developers, as well as data merchants and advertising companies. This data is collected and subsequently sold to third-party companies to refine the profile of consumers and target advertisements. This sea of information contains sensitive individual data on matters such as the health, political or sexual orientation, or religious beliefs of the users of these tech tools. Their harvest and exploitation have become a growing issue of consumer concern ─a key regulatory issue─, and a strategic concern for responsible investors when considering GAFAMs as a potential investment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2015, associated with the siphoning off of the personal data of 87 million Facebook subscribers, played a major part in raising awareness in this respect (Cambridge Analytica developed a software program for Donald Trump’s election campaign to target millions of voters based on their profile).
Apple has been publicly committed to protecting its user’s data and privacy for several years. A philosophical position that already pitted Steve Jobs against Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. The right to data privacy is stated and defended explicitly by the company as a basic human right. This position turned into direct frontal attacks on its tech giant competitors when Apple called for strict GDPR-type regulation in Europe (the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards set clearly defined limits on the business models of Big Data giants). Among the principles stated in its policy, Apple committed to collecting as little data as possible on its users. It has done so by making its hardware devices more “intelligent”.
Criticism is being focused on the China issue, with fingers being pointed at Apple’s duplicity. On the one hand, Apple systematically refuses to hand over personal information to the US authorities (including that of a Californian mass murderer in 2015) in keeping with its data protection principles, while in China the company is making sweeping concessions to Xi Jinping’s government. A New York Times investigation revealed that the company agreed to store customer data on iCloud servers run by Chinese companies and to censor certain applications such as encrypted messaging, which could help fuel the protest. Social control is a strategic issue for the regime, as we can see today with the protests of a part of the population against the Covid policy. More specifically, this means that the government can access the data of millions of Chinese residents (messages, photos, documents), stored in Apple’s China data centres. Apple’s argument is that it is strictly enforcing the country’s cyber security laws. It is all the more important to follow these legal obligations to the letter because China is of major commercial importance, accounting for 20% of their revenue in 2021. Not to mention the brand’s dependence on the country for its manufacturing. Even if Apple switches part of its supply chain to South Asia, the “world factory” that is China will still remain the primary assembly point.
As illustrated, Apple’s business model differs significantly from that of its competitors when it comes to data exploitation, and the company has even managed to turn it into a commercial advantage. Nevertheless, like many companies operating in China, Apple is adapting its data protection principles to political realities in the interests of pragmatism and maintaining sales. While Apple can be credited with some very commendable practices, it is difficult to argue that the company is the white knight of data privacy.
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