The Privacy Battle That Apple Isn’t Fighting

For at least a decade, privacy advocates dreamed of a universal, legally enforceable “Do not track” setting. Now, at least in the most populous state in the US, that dream has become a reality. So why isn’t Apple—a company that increasingly uses privacy as a selling point—helping its customers take advantage of it?

When California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act in 2018, it came with a large asterisk. In theory, the law gives California residents the right to tell websites not to sell their personal data. In practice, exercising that right means clicking through an interminable number of privacy policies and cookie notices, one by one, on every site you visit. Only a masochist or a die-hard privacy enthusiast would go to the trouble of clicking through to the cookie settings every time they’re looking up a menu or buying a vacuum. Privacy will remain, for most people, a right that exists only on paper until there’s a simple one-click way to opt out of tracking across the whole internet.

The good news is, that ideal is inching closer and closer to reality. While the CCPA doesn’t explicitly mention a global opt-out, the regulations interpreting the law issued by the California attorney general in 2020 specified that businesses would have to honor one just as they do individual requests. The technology for a universal opt-out didn’t actually exist yet, but last fall, a coalition of companies, nonprofits, and publishers unveiled a technical specification for a global privacy control that can send a CCPA-enforceable “Do not track” signal at the browser or device level.

Today, if you live in California, you can enable the global privacy control by using a privacy browser like Brave or downloading a privacy extension, like DuckDuckGo or Privacy Badger, in whatever browser you already use. (Seriously, go do it. The full list of options is here.) Once you do, you’ll automatically tell sites you visit “Do not sell my personal information” without having to click anything—and, unlike with previous efforts to create a universal opt-out, any decent-size company that does business in California will be legally obligated to comply, which requires adding just a few lines of code to their website. 

The state of CCPA enforcement remains murky, because some businesses object to the attorney general’s broad interpretation of the law. But California’s government has begun making clear that it intends to enforce the global privacy control requirement. (The more recently passed California Privacy Rights Act, which goes into full effect in 2023, makes this requirement more explicit.) 

In mid-July, Digiday reported that attorney general Rob Bonta’s office had “sent at least 10 and possibly more than 20 companies letters that call on them to honor the GPC.” And an item appeared on a recent list of CCPA enforcement actions on the attorney general’s website noting that a company had been forced to start honoring the signal.

Now, the bad news. While it’s a lot easier to install a privacy extension or browser than click through a million privacy pages, the vast majority of people are still unlikely to do so. (It remains to be seen whether DuckDuckGo papering America’s highways and cities with billboards will inspire a new wave of privacy connoisseurs.) 

This matters quite a bit, because online privacy rights are collective, not individual. The trouble with pervasive tracking is not merely that it can allow someone to access your personal location data and use it to ruin your life, as recently happened to a Catholic priest whose commercially available Grindr data revealed a pattern of frequenting gay bars. Even if you personally opt out of tracking, you’re still living in a world shaped by surveillance. Tracking-based advertising contributes to the decline of quality publications by eating away at the premium that advertisers pay to reach their audiences. Cheaper to find those readers on social media or even on bottom-feeding extremist news sites. It turbocharges the incentive to relentlessly maximize engagement on social media platforms. None of that will go away until a critical mass of people opt out of being tracked across the board.

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