MY TAKE: Apple users show strong support for Tim Cook’s privacy war against Mark Zuckerberger

By Byron V. Acohido

Like a couple of WWE arch rivals, Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have squared off against each other in a donnybrook over consumer privacy.

Cook initially body slammed Zuckerberg — when Apple issued new privacy policies aimed at giving U.S. consumers a smidgen more control over their personal data while online.

Related: Raising kids who care about their privacy

Zuckerberg then dropped kicked Cook by taking out full-page newspaper ads painting Apple’s social responsibility flexing as bad for business; he then hammered Cook with a pop-up ad campaign designed to undermine Apple’s new privacy policies.

But wait. Here’s Cook rising from the mat to bash Z-Man at the Brussels’ International Privacy Day, labeling his tormentor as an obsessive exploiter who ought to be stopped from so greedily exploiting consumers’ digital footprints for his personal gain.

This colorful chapter in the history of technology and society isn’t just breezing by unnoticed. A recent survey of some 2,000 U.S. iPhone and iPad users, conducted by, a phone and tech trade-in website, shows American consumers are tuned in and beginning to recognize what’s at stake.

Fully 72 percent of those polled by SellCell said they were aware of new privacy changes in recent Apple software updates, not just in a cursory manner, but with a high level of understanding; some 42 percent said they understood the privacy improvements extremely well or at least very well, while 21 percent said they understood them moderately well.

Another telling finding: some 65 percent of respondents indicated they were extremely or very concerned about websites and mobile apps that proactively track their online behaviors, while only 14 percent said they were not at all concerned.

Paradigm shift coming

SellCell’s findings are yet another piece of evidence demonstrating how we are inching closer to altering the engrained paradigm for how we’ve come to do online privacy here in the U.S. It’s a shift that could change the course of humanity. By putting individuals more directly in control of their digital personas, we could steer toward a more equitably distribution of wealth and a more stable balance of geopolitical power.

Yes, that’s a big, optimistic declaration. But it’s not just me putting this out there. Harvard business professor Dr. Shoshana Zuboff lays out how and why control of online privacy has become a linchpin to the current state of wealth distribution in her 2019 New York Times Book of the Year, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for A Human Future At the New Frontier of Power.


Zuboff exhaustively documents how Google and Facebook created services that assigned value to each individual’s online behaviors, then, without really asking permission, swooped in to monetize this deep access to personal data almost exclusively to grow their advertising revenue.

Zuboff and other social theorists, like, economist Jeremy Rifkin, argue that unstoppable forces are in motion to alter the current U.S privacy paradigm, which, they argue, took shape as a direct result of how Google and Facebook got built. Just how quickly and how deeply things truly change remains to be seen. Rifkin gets into this in his riveting speech,  The Third Industrial Revolution: A Radical New Sharing Economy, which has garnered more than 5 million YouTube hits.

Ethical limits

Cook’s slugfest with Zuckerberg is part of this quickening. Their public feuding erupted a few weeks after California voters last November overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative toughening up the state’s pioneering Consumer Privacy Protection Act. And now along comes SellCell’s survey to extensively illustrate something Cook and Zuckerberg, well know: U.S. consumers are firmly engaged and are paying rapt attention to their online privacy.

There are a lot of marbles rolling in one direction and it’s difficult to predict where they’ll all land. Who knows what consumer privacy in the U.S. will look two or five years from today? Who can say where the feuding of Cook vs. Zuckerberg will — or won’t  — ultimately take us?

I asked Elizabeth Rogers, a privacy and data security partner at the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich, about this. Roger is formerly Chief Privacy Officer for the state of Texas, the first person to hold that post. As a professional observer of privacy trends, here’s how she sees this:


“I do believe that the patently vocal debate being had, about placing ethical limits on the control a company seeks to have, or to not have, over consumer data is critical in the evolution of the Information Age. The largest players in the tech industry need to demonstrate that they can self-regulate, or else lawmakers will take over a core asset of their business – consumer data – as demonstrated  by California’s consumer privacy act.

“The second reason for this healthy public debate is that thought leaders in technology are in the best position to implement tools for respecting consumer privacy, such as providing full disclosure about data collection and requiring consent for collection of sensitive personal data. It’s critical that they openly discuss these fundamental consumer rights.”

SellCell’s survey of  iOS users sheds light on consumers’ growing level of awareness and concern. I had the chance to discuss the big takeaways with Sarah McConomy, SellCell’s chief operating officer. Here are excerpts edited for clarity and length:

LW: Some 65 percent of respondents said they were extremely or very concerned about tracking. Did that surprise you?

McConomy: No, I wasn’t surprised. The privacy conversation has been very apparent for many years now through ISO and GDPR, and consumers have become more aware through constant prompts to review their privacy selections. The tracking debate has been built on a steady movement that has gathered speed over the past decade.

LW: What are the drivers behind this trend?

McConomy: The stream of news from mainstream media and tech magazines highlighting personal data privacy options and improved regulations, for one. Apple has also spent a good degree of time trying to educate users about the importance of controlling privacy. Their website succinctly articulates what tracking is all about; their flyer, A Day in The Life of Your Data , is a good example. The recent friction between Apple and Facebook has also only worked to further heighten the conversation and debate around tracking.

LW: Some 65 percent also agreed with Apple’s new privacy policy. What does this tell you about iOS users?

McConomy: Apple users are the most loyal smartphone users out there. With loyalty comes respect, adherence and compliance. It’s quite natural to listen and respect the view of the manufacturer that you are invested in. So it’s not at all surprising that 65 percent of Apple users agreed with Apple’s policy changes. I would expect that percentage to increase over time as the new iOS updates are rolled out and Apple educates more users.

LW: Your survey questions uncovered some interesting nuances; what are some other key findings?

McConomy: Consumers are cognizant of the ads getting pushed out to them; 65 percent agreed they would rather see generic ads than allow tracking between sites and apps for personalized ads, while 35 percent disagreed.

The majority of users are happy to suppress personalized adverts generated through tracking and just to see generic adverts. This essentially means they are happy to now not see adverts about the things they like and are interested in –  to protect their privacy.

For instance, 57 percent also stated that they would refrain from downloading an app that asks for too much personal info. This again also shows that users demand more control over their privacy and want the right to select how much information about themselves that they share.

LW: Consumers are diverse, of course. Some 74 percent of respondents also indicated they would rather have apps track them than pay for services that are free today. Can you unpack this seemingly contradictory sentiment?


McConomy: This shows users are concerned about tracking and appreciate the privacy updates, but are also not prepared to pay subscriptions to use every day apps that they have come to rely on, like Facebook. In other words, why should they pay to protect information that is about them?

Users may also feel that the debate is very much being led and steered by Apple and as a profitable giant will rely on the support from them to ensure that they are not subjected to arbitrary costs that come with more control.

LW: What’s the big takeaway?

McConomy: The main takeaway is that consumers want to take control of which platforms can track their data, but this control should not come at a cost that is going to hit their pocket.

From a user perspective, tracking should not come at a cost. Users will also be aware that with the bigger apps and services that rely on tracking to serve successful bespoke ads to users, these businesses have seen huge profits retained for over a decade, and it may be time to pass some of that back to their user base.

LW: How do you expect this shift to play out, going forward, over the next few years?

McConomy: Facebook, Instagram, etc., make a lot of money delivering contextual and personalized ads that come from tracking users activity. A lot of small businesses utilize this model and stand a chance of losing revenue when Apple and other manufacturers tighten permissions on this.

I suspect however, that the privacy argument will win and customers may get used to seeing more generic adverts and Facebook, etc., will see profits squeezed. Alternatively, to allow some tracking, Facebook and other companies may be forced to take even more responsibility over people’s data and there may need to be even further regulations around storing of data. I suspect that it will be the former that will override.

LW: Anything else?

McConomy: I think that a lot of people do actually appreciate contextual adverts that deliver meaningful adverts to them around clothing, technology and travel, for instance, but may not realize this until it is restricted. Things will become much different when this changes and people see that this is not happening. I also suspect that there is still a large proportion of everyday phone users that probably find the “tracking”, “data privacy” information very complicated and technical and as such need more time and information before they can make informed decisions.

Something Apple should consider is that users still want a user friendly way of controlling their privacy. Our study indicated that more than half – 52 percent — think frequent tracking prompts would negatively impact the user experience. Apple needs to make sure that the sudden movement to users controlling privacy, through notifications, doesn’t stress them out.


Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.


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