This past week’s recent skirmish between Apple, Facebook and Google over what content finds its way to The App Store has set the stage for future debate between the major tech companies’ competing value systems and raises the question of how far Apple is willing to go to uphold its mantle as the current arbiter of privacy.
For those who haven’t been following: On Tuesday, TechCrunch published an article explaining how Facebook paid customers up to $20 per month to install a research app allowing the company to monitor user activity. Facebook curtailed The App Store’s normal review process by taking advantage of Apple’s “Developer Enterprise Program” — a manipulation Apple says violated its developer guidelines. Within 24 hours, Apple responded by banning not only the research app in question, but by revoking Facebook’s enterprise certificate writ large — a move that effectively disabled all of Facebook’s internal use employee apps. Just one day later, Apple revoked Google’s access too, citing similar violations of developer guidelines.
While Apple reportedly restored Facebook’s access on Friday, the dispute signals a greater struggle amongst tech companies over who wields distribution power. New York Times columnist Kevin Roose aptly characterized the evolving tech giants feud over data and privacy as a “cold war.” Above all, Apple’s revoking of privileges reminds us that even ubiquitous services we all regularly use created by the likes of Facebook and Google only matter so far as there exists a vehicle (in this case The App Store) with which to deliver them. While these bans impacted development versions of particular apps, Apple’s move raises another related question: what would it take for Apple to totally erase Facebook from The App Store?
The Terms of Service Holy Grail
One basic fact often lost when talking about major tech companies and their obligations is that Apple, Facebook and Twitter are all private companies, and as such, ultimately get to choose what content they host on their platforms. While that may constitute their legal standard, all three companies mentioned have voluntarily made efforts to hold themselves to a higher internal standard. Rather than simply boot undesirables from their platforms without explanation, these companies instead regularly refer to violations of their “terms of service” or “community guidelines” as justification for punitive action. When Apple revoked Facebook and Google’s access, a simple public declaration saying they didn’t agree with Facebook’s shoddy personal privacy standards would not have met their self imposed threshold for action — even though the real motivation appears exactly that. They had to point to some provable guideline violation.
This terms of service enforcement threshold transcends beyond Apple. Take last year’s public debate over whether or not to deplatform controversial conspiracy theory propagator Alex Jones. Social media users, political commentators, journalist and activists alike spent months shouting at Facebook and Twitter to remove Jones’s content. At any point during this back and forth, either of the companies could have blacklisted Jones without an explanation.They didn’t. While their exact guiding philosophies differ, both Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey approached the prospect of deplatforming with immense caution because they view their platforms as something intrinsically more than a private tech company. They see these platforms as an online town hall, a facilitator of voices and ideas, a harbinger of democracy that should only be filtered in the most extreme instances. But principles only get you so far. Eventually, both services relented to outside pressure. On August 8, Facebook finally blocked Alex Jones’s account and Twitter followed suit one month later. To justify the blocks, Facebook and Twitter pointed to Jones’s violation of their “Community Standards” and “abusive behavior policy,” respectively.
This threshold for enforcement shrouds the terms of service and community guidelines with an air of techno mysticism. Major tech companies reliance on these sacred texts give them the appearance not of font on a screen but more like that of commandments etched on stone and handed down through the clouds. Yet, while Facebook, Twitter and Apple reserve this level of scrutiny for some, they quickly disregard it for others. If Jones’s comments warranted deplotfoming for violating company guidelines, then surely @realdonaldtrump’s account — which has explicitly called for violence against journalists and other groups, would have as well, would it not? (To be clear, I don’t necessarily personally adhere to that position, but it represents a glaring hole in the deplatforming logic worth considering.)
Dorsey briefly touched on the Trump point specifically last month in a Huffington Post interview. When asked if an explicit Trump tweet calling for murder would warrant a removal, Dorsey responded, “We’d certainly talk about it.” Talk, but not removal. So much for the immutability of the holy terms of service.
Which brings us back to Apple.
If Apple were to adhere to its own rules, then it would follow that Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, and any number of its following 2018 privacy blunders, would have seemingly sufficed as grounds for the apps removal from The App Store. Here’s what Apple’s Developer Agreement says exactly:
“Use of the Site, Content or Services to violate, tamper with, or circumvent the security of any computer network, software, passwords, encryption codes, technological protection measures, or to otherwise engage in any kind of illegal activity, or to enable others to do so, is expressly prohibited.” [My emphasis added.]
All this is to say that while the major tech companies regularly refer back to terms of service agreements to justify removing content, there are clearly a number of other, less codified variables and ideas that go into making a final decision of what content makes the cut. When musing over what it would take for Apple to totally remove Facebook from The App Store, it’s helpful to look at what Apple does remove. And they remove a lot.
Since its creation, The App Store has earned a reputation as a space more difficult to enter than the Google Play Store. On the positive ends, this means IOS users can download with some piece of mind knowing that Apple’s level of scrutiny ensures less exploitable vulnerabilities and an overall higher quality of content. But The App Store’s often opaque strictness, refereed to by some as, “farcical,” also leads to the banning of seemingly innocuous content creators.
One of the most infamous examples involves Apple’s banning of an app that monitors drone strikes conducted by the U.S. military. First launched in 2012 by data artist Josh Begley, Drones+, as the app was first called, worked by sending users a push notification alerting them of a confirmed drone strike. In March of 2017, Apple banned the app — for the thirteenth time. When asked to explain why they followed through with the ban, Apple gave multiple superfluous responses, such as the app was, “not useful enough or entertaining enough.” Many apps have received similar inconsistent burials.
Too Big to Ban
In the end, Apple holds those with higher levels of influence to different standards than small independent app makers. The terms of service and community guidelines are exalted by the company as some great equalizer, like the digital equivalent of a government constitution. Yet, just as the rule of law holds less command over wealthy and powerful individuals, so too do these community guidelines and terms of service lose authoritative significance when used to curtail those large tech companies and individuals with power.
Even with this cynicism in mind, incremental steps towards enforcement still mark progress. Apple’s decision to revoke Facebook and Google’s developer privileges required a certain degree of courage. (Even if it does simultaneously benefit them to continue beefing up their pro-privacy brand.) For the past few days, Google and Facebook employees using developer version of internal apps have had their emails, maps and transportation services impacted; a pestering nuisance which will either illicit anger or support for Apple depending on your level of sympathy for Google and Facebook employees.
Short term impacts aside, the recent bans by Apple are limited in scope and consequence. As things stand, despite months of plummeting stock prices and consumer skepticism, Facebook still remains undoubtedly one of the most valuable companies in the world. Attached with that value comes power and influence. It’s that type of power that separates Facebook from Drone+, or Donald Trump from Alex Jones. Facebook can continue to actively violate Apple’s agreements, but until their user base drops to a point of insignificance, Apple will likely continue to look the other way, with an occasionally mic drop privacy quote from Tim Cook.
So in short; what would it take for Apple to remove Facebook From the App Store? Well, right now, that prospect seems totally out of the realm of possibility.