Tech shorts for June 16, 2015: Apple not a privacy paragon? And Google's ad-blocking quandary
Apple: Not quite the paragon of privacy virtue it claims to be?
When Apple CEO Tim Cook challenged Google (primarily), Facebook (secondarily), and other tech services that make their money by selling what they know about their customers to honor consumers' privacy, you had to know there would be a "pot calling the kettle black" response. (In the June 9, 2015, Weekly I wrote about Cook's speech at the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Champions of Freedom event at which he was honored.)
Sure enough, the pundits had a field day with Cook's comments, if not an outright feeding frenzy. In a June 10, 2015, article, the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo points out that Cook overlooked two facts: Apple collects quite a bit of information about its customers and profits from use of that data; and Apple benefits directly from the success of Google, Facebook, and other services whose revenue depends on selling what they know about their users to advertisers and other third parties.
Yes, "free" services have propelled the astounding growth of the Internet. Yes, those services deliver the Internet's benefits to billions of people around the world who would likely be locked out if they had to pay for them. And yes, Apple's products tend to lock customers into the Apple universe. But as Re/code's Walter Mossberg writes in a June 12, 2015, article, Apple is breaking new ground in the tech industry by presenting privacy as a product. The tagline? "You are in control."
If only we could really believe that. Well, it's a start.
Google's caught in the middle of the ad-blocking war
When it comes to ad-blocking browser extensions, Google can't win for losing. The anti-ad-blocking service PageFair states in a June 8, 2015, post that Google CEO Larry Page "neatly sidestepp[ed]" a question at the company's recent stockholder meeting about the effect of ad blocking on Google's revenue. The web-ad universe criticized the company for agreeing to pay AdBlock Plus, reportedly $25 million, to participate in AdBlock's Acceptable Ads program.
PageFair guestimated the impact of ad blocking on Google's bottom line by using a conservative estimate of ad-blocking extensions being used by 10 percent of U.S. browsers (the actual figure is claimed to be closer to 14 percent). By being whitelisted, Google is recouping $1 billion in revenue it would otherwise have lost -- not a bad return on its $25 million investment. However, Google loses twice that amount from the ads that are blocked.
Since 57 percent of Google's overall traffic comes from overseas, and ad blocking is more prevalent in Europe in particular, PageFair extrapolates Google's losses and comes to a figure of $3.1 billion in revenue lost due to blocked ads. The real bad news for Google and other online services that depend on ads for their revenue: Use of ad blockers is expected to increase by 50 percent in 2015, and to spread to mobile devices. There's now a version of AdBlock Plus for Android devices, and the next release of Apple's Safari browser for iOS 9 will feature a downloadable ad-blocking extension, as NiemanLab's Joshua Benton writes in a June 10, 2015, article.
Sooner or later, Internet services will wise up and offer us a choice: Pay a little bit to get your content without ads and tracking, or get the content for free along with ads and tracking. The system could work much like California's FasTrak for bridge tolls: You keep money on deposit from which the web micropayment "tolls" would be paid. The best way for consumers to force the creation of such a pay-or-free system is to keep blocking ads.