Privacy, Apple, Cookies

Apple takes on the Cookie Monster

The cookie monster isn’t happy with Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook.

Tim has decided that cookies, or the lack of them, will be a key battleground in defining what Apple stands for in comparison to other tech giants. The massive black and white poster at the CES technology show stating ‘What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone’ is a statement of intent.

This has far-reaching implications because when Apple’s influence and marketing power is focused on an issue, consumers notice, the agenda changes and others have no choice but to react. And quickly.

In October last year, speaking in Brussels to privacy officials, Tim said “We at Apple believe that privacy is a fundamental human right but recognise that not everyone sees it that way. The desire to put profits before privacy is nothing new.”

He may as well have said that we at Apple are the good guys who care about users’ privacy and data security and those Facebook, Google and Amazon people are the bad guys who don’t. They gather huge amounts of data about them and using it in ways that aren’t in the user’s interest. We don’t. He was more polite but that’s what he meant.

Cookies are very important in data gathering and will be central to this new battleground as the shaggy, blue cookie monster makes clear.

The little packets of data, called cookies, sent by an internet server to your browser when you land on a website are the way that so many companies from brands to advertising technology and media companies track users, gaining knowledge about them and then targeting them with marketing messages.

For Tim this is “surveillance” and in his fast evolving view of Apple world the majority of cookies are now an endangered species.

Last year Apple disabled third party cookies from their ecosystem. These are cookies placed on your computer by websites other than the ones you visit. But companies rapidly found work-arounds.

Now Apple are taking matters a big leap further. There will now be a 7-day limit on the lifespan of a cookie placed on your Apple browser unless you visit that site again within that period, bringing it back to life for a further 7 days each time.

The result is that sites that you visit regularly from your Apple device will still be able to track you as a user but those sites that you visit once or twice and who are currently able to pursue you around the internet with dogged persistence (unless you go through the tiresome task of clearing out your cookies) will find it much harder to do so in Apple land.

There are some exceptions to Apple’s new 7-day rule. Apple clearly recognises that if you log into a service with a username and password and a cookie is used to allow easy access (a newspaper subscription or a bank login, for example) that is likely to be a brand that you trust, so those cookies will be allowed to live for two years uninterrupted for now.

Apple are working their way towards that balance where they are the champions of data privacy but don’t mess up ‘legitimate’ cookie uses that enhance the user experience. This will be a steady direction of travel.

Other browsers will have to react. Firefox will match Apple. Google and Microsoft executives will be scratching their heads and formulating a plan. Can they stay on the side of data ‘mis-use’ if that is how the Apple marketing engine depicts the landscape?

What are the implications of a world where cookies become far less reliable?

Ad technology, advertising dependent media organisations and user insight companies will have to engage in a furious work around as they see the foundations of their businesses challenged. Advertising buying agencies will have their data weaknesses exposed further.

The changes are not an issue for Apple’s FAANG surveillance ‘enemies’, Facebook, Google and Amazon. These businesses built on deep lakes of consumer data aren’t reliant on long-lived cookies since they gain their insight from logged in users who have provided them with huge insight accreted over time.

In fact, it will make them even more secure in their advertising and lead generation dominance because others will find it harder to track consumers effectively and to compete in the quality of targeting and insight.

Sites that have invested to ensure that their users log in look foresighted. The BBC is pushing ever harder to ensure users log in to use their services. The major French newspaper publishers are creating a common login across all their sites. This means they can build deep user insight over time without being reliant upon cookies.

Apple have launched the early skirmishes in what I expect to become the privacy wars between the FAANG giants. Expect bloodier battles in the future since privacy is a battleground that will not go away. Regulators may play the role of referee in the future but lack the intellectual or legislative firepower to join in at present.

Many publishers and brands were punished for their reliance on Facebook referrals and felt brutal pain as traffic referrals and video views plunged when Facebook changed their strategy and their algorithm. Next those dependent on cookies will feel the pressure of swingeing change, the scale and nature of which is yet to be decided. Many publishers have become more dependent on Apple News for their traffic. It is only a question of time before that platform evolves and changes in ways that will naturally be designed for the benefit of Apple with little thought for the organisations dependent upon them.

In a digital world dominated by the FAANGS, media and marketing companies create business models dependent on the goodwill of other platform owners at their own risk. The old advertising adage that only one thing is certain, you will eventually lose the client, applies here – eventually FAANG owned platforms will change and your business model may no longer be relevant. This may happen overnight.

Media companies must take back control of their business models if they want to sleep well at night.

The New York Times is building a server-side advertising platform that will significantly reduce their dependence on the cookies that are under attack. The Outline have built their own advertising approach with no dependence on the traditional cookie-based advertising stack. The French publishers are putting aside their traditional rivalries to build a common login.

What are you going to do?

POSTSCRIPT:
12 hours after writing this post, Apple posted their latest advertisement onto YouTube. A fresh salvo from the Apple marketing guns.

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About Tim Ewington

Co-founder of Shortlist Media. Previously co-founder of media strategy consultancy, Human Capital. Still innovating, consulting and investing.
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