Entrepreneurs

The Biggest Threat to Facebook Isn’t Apple, It’s Mark Zuckerberg


During Facebook’s earnings call, the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, made a point of talking about the risk Apple’s upcoming iOS 14 changes pose to its business. Those changes will require apps to ask permission before they are able to track users across apps and the internet. 

For Facebook, a company whose entire business model is built on the ability to track users, collect their data, and then sell targeted ads based on all of that information, losing the ability to track users could be a real problem. The thing is, Apple isn’t stopping any app from tracking any user. It’s only requiring that apps ask permission first. The only way an app won’t be able to track a user is if that user says “please don’t track me.” 

That seems pretty reasonable. If people don’t want to be tracked online, it seems reasonable that apps shouldn’t track them. Apple is just adding transparency to that interaction and allowing users the choice. 

Clearly, Facebook doesn’t see it that way.

“We increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors,” Zuckerberg told analysts. “Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do. They say they are doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests.”

There is so much that we could unpack in that statement, but I want to highlight a couple of things. First, Zuckerberg is right, Apple is a competitor, but not in the way it thinks. Apple has a messaging product, but it isn’t monetized. Apple doesn’t show ads in Messages. 

Second, if Apple’s goal is giving users a choice over how their data is used, what difference does the incentive make. If Apple is advantaged by respecting people’s privacy and giving them a choice over whether and how their data is collected, I’m not sure that’s quite the burn you think it is. 

Finally, It’s hard to know how many different ways to say it, but if your business model is threatened by the idea that people will be given a choice as to whether you can track them, your problem isn’t Apple. Your problem is your business model. 

For that matter, personalized advertising, which is just Facebook’s nicer way of describing ads targeted based on your browsing history and activity, isn’t a necessity for small businesses. Small businesses existed long before there was a massive social platform willing to take their money to show ads to its users. 

Sure, Facebook’s version of advertising is more efficient, and maybe even more effective. But, even with Apple’s proposed change, Facebook will still know where you live, how old you are, what your interests are because you tell it all of those things. For most small businesses, being able to target 25 to 30-year-old women that live within 20 miles of your salon isn’t going to change.

I’m also not so sure Facebook is actually worried about this particular change. The segment of its ad business that will be directly affected is quite small in comparison to its overall business. The real problem is that now everyone will be given a choice about whether to let Facebook track them, and the company logically assumes that most people will opt-out. 

And even if that doesn’t have an immediate effect on its business, it does affect its brand. Suddenly people will be confronted with the reality that Facebook isn’t free at all–it’s just that most people weren’t aware of the cost.

Now they’ll see a little popup that tells them that the cost is their personal information. Instead of facing that reality and making changes, Facebook has doubled down on the narrative that Apple is actually the bad guy here.

That’s why the biggest problem facing Facebook isn’t Apple, it’s Mark Zuckerberg. 

I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. Zuckerberg can’t see Facebook as anything other than a force for good and a champion of small businesses. Every decision he makes is to advance the version of Facebook he sees in his mind, a version that isn’t real but is based on his own good intentions. The thing is, we always assume the best about our own intentions, even when they are self-serving or even dangerous.

The smart move for Zuckerberg and Facebook would be to start with the idea that privacy is the given. If you can’t build something that protects that, don’t build it. I don’t mean build things and then try to find a way to say it protects privacy, that’s starting in the wrong position with the wrong motivation. It’s why people don’t trust Facebook.

By the way, Zuckerberg isn’t alone. Companies are full of leaders that can’t see beyond the picture they have in their own mind of their good intentions.

That’s dangerous because it means they can’t see the problems that everyone else sees. And that means they won’t ever lead the way to a solution. You can’t lead people where you aren’t able to go. That’s true for all of us. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

 

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