The screen on an Apple Inc. Macbook Pro laptop computer displays the word ‘Data ?’ as it sits on a table in this arranged photograph in London. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

Apple Throws a Wrench in Facebook’s Data-Gathering Engine

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Apple's software-focused event on Monday was a momentous moment — for Facebook Inc.

Toward the tail end of a more than two-hour Apple presentation to software developers, the company announced changes to its Safari web browsers that — assuming they remain unchanged and function as Apple sketched out — seem set to seriously hamper Facebook's contentious data-harvesting practices, and those of many other internet companies that count on following people as they roam around the web. 

Here's some context: Many websites (including Bloomberg Opinion) have small icons to let people easily share articles or other pieces of web information to social networks, including Facebook, or to "like" that piece of digital information.

Apple Throws a Wrench in Facebook’s Data-Gathering Engine

Those website icons are also part of Facebook's massive data-harvesting system. When websites have those icons, they send information about people's web activity back to Facebook, which uses the information to fill out the personal digital dossiers they have on billions of people in order to improve how it tailors the advertisements Facebook sells. Many Facebook users aren’t aware that the company collects information about non-Facebook websites that people visit, even if they don’t click on any of those “like” or “share” buttons. This harvesting is standard internet practice. 

On Monday, however, Apple threw the internet economy a curveball. As part of what Apple says is a commitment to digital privacy, the company’s Safari web browsers for Mac computers, iPhones and iPads will start showing pop-up alerts to people every time they're surfing a website that is beaming information on their activity back to the mother ships at Facebook or other companies. The person then has a chance to click yes or no to sharing web-browser information with Facebook or others. The Safari policy change isn't specifically targeted at Facebook, but it also is specifically targeted at Facebook, given its pervasive information collection about web activity.

This may become very annoying; imagine getting what could be multiple alerts every time you visit a website. Many websites do this already to alert people to the information they collect such as "cookies," and it is irksome. But Apple is now essentially forcing people to repeatedly decide whether they will allow Facebook to track information on their web browser actions.

Many people will reflexively click “yes” all the time so they can keep web surfing. But I suspect that after everything the public has heard about Facebook in the last 18 months, a decent number of others will reflexively chose “no” when asked whether they want to permit Facebook to track their activity. 

It's a good bet that companies will find workarounds to Safari's new policy on web tracking notifications. And prior Safari changes that Apple has made to limit data collection for personally tailored digital advertising never resulted in the digital-ad doomsday that some people predicted. In some cases, technology to limit tracking of people’s web activity has helped the data-harvesting powers-that-be, Facebook and Google. 

Still, what Apple announced has the potential to be big. Safari is the second-most-used web browser in the U.S. after Google’s Chrome, according to information firm StatCounter, largely by virtue of the pervasive use of Safari on iPhones. That big market share means Apple may be able to do with a single policy change what global regulators and politicians couldn’t do: potentially force Facebook to slim down the types of information it collects on internet users. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.