Apple Does Right by Users, and Advertisers are Displeased

With the new Safari 11 update, Apple takes an important step to protect your privacy, specifically how your browsing habits are tracked and shared with parties other than the sites you visit. In response, Apple is getting criticized by the advertising industry for “destroying the Internet’s economic model.” While the advertising industry is trying to shift the conversation to what they call the economic model of the Internet, the conversation must instead focus on the indiscriminate tracking of users and the violation of their privacy.

When you browse the web, you might think that your information only lives in the service you choose to visit. However, many sites load elements that share your data with third parties. First-party cookies are set by the domain you are visiting, allowing sites to recognize you from your previous visits but not to track you across other sites. For example, if you visit first examplemedia.com and then socialmedia.com, your visit would only be known to each site. In contrast, third-party cookies are those set by any other domains than the one you are visiting, and were created to circumvent the original design of cookies. In this case, when you would visit examplemedia.com and it loads tracker.socialmedia.com as well, socialmedia.com would be able to track you an all sites that you visit where its tracker is loaded.

Websites commonly use third-party tracking to allow analytics services, data brokerages, and advertising companies to set unique cookies. This data is aggregated into individual profiles and fed into a real-time auction process where companies get to bid for the right to serve an ad to a user when they visit a page. This mechanism can be used for general behavioral advertising but also for “retargeting.” In the latter case, the vendor of a product viewed on one site buys the chance to target the user later with ads for the same product on other sites around the web. As a user, you should be able to expect you will be treated with respect and that your personal browsing habits will be protected. When websites share your behavior without your knowledge, that trust is broken.

Safari has been blocking third-party cookies by default since Safari 5.1, released in 2010, and has been key to Apple’s emerging identity as a defender of user privacy. Safari distinguished between these seedy cookies from those placed on our machines by first parties – sites we visit intentionally. From 2011 onwards, advertising companies have been devising ways to circumvent these protections. One of the biggest retargeters, Criteo, even acquired a patent on a technique to subvert this protection 1. Criteo, however, was not the first company to circumvent Safari’s user protection. In 2012, Google paid 22.5 million dollars to settle an action by the FTC after they used another workaround to track Safari users with cookies from the DoubleClick Ad Network. Safari had an exception to the third-party ban for submission forms where the user entered data deliberately (e.g. to sign up). Google exploited this loophole when Safari users visited sites participating in Google’s advertising network to set a unique cookie.

The new Safari update, with Intelligent Tracking Prevention, closes loopholes around third-party cookie-blocking by using machine learning to distinguish the sites a user has a relationship with from those they don’t, and treating the cookies differently based on that. When you visit a site, any cookies that are set can be used in a third-party context for twenty-four hours. During the first twenty-four hours the third-party cookies can be used to track the user, but afterward can only be used to login and not to track. This means that sites that you visit regularly are not significantly affected. The companies this will hit hardest are ad companies unconnected with any major publisher.

We understand the need for sites to build a successful business model, but this should not come at the expense of people’s privacy. This is why EFF launched initiatives like the EFF DNT Policy and tools like Privacy Badger. These initiatives and tools target tracking, not advertising. Rather than attacking Apple for serving their users, the advertising industry should treat this as an opportunity to change direction and develop advertising models that respect (and not exploit) users.

Apple has been a powerful force in user privacy on a mass scale in recent years, as reflected by their support for encryption, the intelligent processing of user data on device rather than in the cloud, and limitations on ad tracking on mobile and desktop. By some estimates, Apple handles 30% of all pages on mobile. Safari’s innovations are not the silver bullet that will stop all tracking, but by stepping up to protect their users’ privacy Apple has set a challenge for other browser developers. When the user’s privacy interests conflict with the business models of the advertising technology complex, is it possible to be neutral? We hope that Mozilla, Microsoft and Google will follow Apple, Brave and Opera’s lead.

  • 1. In order to present themselves as a first party, Criteo had their host website include code on the internal links in their website to redirect when clicked. So if you click on a link to jackets in a clothes store, your click brings you for an instant to Criteo before forwarding you on to your intended destination. This trick makes them appear as a first party to your browser and they pop up a notification informing you and stating that by clicking on the page you consent to them storing a cookie. Once Safari accepted a first party cookie, that site was allowed to set cookies also when it was a third party. So now they can retarget you elsewhere. Other companies (AdRoll, for example) used the same trick.

Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation.