Privacy: With iOS 11 and Safari's cookie blocking, Apple is kicking advertisers in the teeth

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Apple news has been dominated -- understandably -- by the launch of the iPhone X, iPhone 8/8Plus and Apple Watch Series 3. But there's also iOS 11 to consider. The latest version of Apple's mobile operating system hit iPhones and iPads around the world yesterday, bringing with it a raft of new features.

The release of iOS 11 includes an updated version of Safari and, importantly, a feature called Intelligent Tracking Prevention. Enabled by default, the feature blocks certain cookies from websites, making it harder for advertisers to follow users around the web. Users and privacy advocates are happy; advertisers, it must be said, are not, saying "Apple's unilateral and heavy-handed approach is bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love."

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As iOS 11 is now on millions of Apple devices around the globe, advertisers are more than a little concerned about the implications of Intelligent Tracking Prevention. In a few days' time -- September 25, to be precise -- their worries are going to be heightened when the same feature rolls out to macOS High Sierra on desktops and laptops all over the world.

So concerned are advertisers, that six advertising groups -- including the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the American Advertising Federation and the Association of National Advertisers -- have written an open letter of complaint. In it, they say that Apple is breaking the "infrastructure of the modern internet" by imposing its own "opaque and arbitrary" standards.

The changes introduced by Apple will make it much harder for advertisers to track people's movements around the internet, meaning they will be less able to build up consumer profiles for targeted advertising. Apple is using machine learning to determine which first-party cookies are useful to users -- such as those relating to logins -- and which are privacy-invading ad-related cookies.

The letter from the advertising groups reads:

An Open Letter from the Digital Advertising Community

The undersigned organizations are leading trade associations for the digital advertising and marketing industries, collectively representing thousands of companies that responsibly participate in and shape today’s digital landscape for the millions of consumers they serve.

We are deeply concerned about the Safari 11 browser update that Apple plans to release, as it overrides and replaces existing user-controlled cookie preferences with Apple’s own set of opaque and arbitrary standards for cookie handling.

Safari's new "Intelligent Tracking Prevention" would change the rules by which cookies are set and recognized by browsers. In addition to blocking all third-party cookies (i.e. those set by a domain other than the one being visited), as the current version of Safari does, this new functionality would create a set of haphazard rules over the use of first-party cookies (i.e. those set by a domain the user has chosen to visit) that block their functionality or purge them from users' browsers without notice or choice.

The infrastructure of the modern Internet depends on consistent and generally applicable standards for cookies, so digital companies can innovate to build content, services, and advertising that are personalized for users and remember their visits. Apple's Safari move breaks those standards and replaces them with an amorphous set of shifting rules that will hurt the user experience and sabotage the economic model for the Internet.

Apple's unilateral and heavy-handed approach is bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love. Blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers, and it will make advertising more generic and less timely and useful. Put simply, machine-driven cookie choices do not represent user choice; they represent browser-manufacturer choice. As organizations devoted to innovation and growth in the consumer economy, we will actively oppose any actions like this by companies that harm consumers by distorting the digital advertising ecosystem and undermining its operations.

We strongly encourage Apple to rethink its plan to impose its own cookie standards and risk disrupting the valuable digital advertising ecosystem that funds much of today's digital content and services.

Signed,

American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s)

American Advertising Federation (AAF)

Association of National Advertisers (ANA)

Data & Marketing Association (DMA)

Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)

Network Advertising Initiative (NAI)

In a statement given to AdWeek, Apple stood by its decision, saying:

Ad tracking technology has become so pervasive that it is possible for ad tracking companies to recreate the majority of a person's web browsing history. This information is collected without permission and is used for ad re-targeting, which is how ads follow people around the Internet.

Safari does not include an ad blocking feature, but the latest change means that users are going to see more generic, less targeted advertising. Google, on the other hand, is already planning to block some advertisements with its Chrome browser -- those which are deemed "intrusive."

Image credit:  Renan Teuman / Shutterstock

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