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Facebook threatens to start charging for apps if people block iPhone tracking

Published May 3rd, 2021 11:35AM EDT
Facebook vs. Apple
Image: Urupong/Adobe

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Facebook’s big iPhone nightmare has arrived. iOS 14.5 comes with a privacy feature called App Tracking Transparency (ATT) that forces all developers to ask permission before tracking users across apps and services. Like other social platforms, Facebook has been tracking users online for years without ever asking for consent. But the company’s sustained campaign against Apple in the past few months actually helped promote ATT. Facebook attacked Apple in print campaigns over the app privacy labels that rolled out over the winter, and then the company started a TV ad campaign to criticize ATT. Facebook claimed in those ads that Apple’s privacy protections will hurt small businesses, begging users to allow tracking so it can continue to serve personalized ads.

While criticizing Apple’s privacy features in iOS 14.5, Facebook also said it will comply with the new requirements. Developers have no choice, of course. They have to display the prompt if they intend to track Apple users. The iPhone maker has said more than once that the feature doesn’t block tracking. It just makes it mandatory for all the companies to ask for consent. Also, blocking Facebook and other apps from tracking iPhone and iPad activity might not prevent all tracking. Companies might have other tools in place to fingerprint users without asking for permission first.

Facebook is aware that iOS 14.5 could impact its advertising business and has informed partners of the changes ahead. But the company won’t go down without a fight. Before showing Apple’s prompt, Facebook will deliver its own message where it’ll suggest that it might start charging for apps if people block iPhone tracking.

We have known since early February that the new Facebook prompts would come to the Facebook and Instagram experiences once iOS 14.5 rolled out. Facebook updated one of its blog posts with examples of what its prompts will look like — here are the proposed prompts again:

Facebook iOS 14.5 Tracking
Facebook will display prompts in its iPhone apps asking users to allow it to track them after the iOS 14.5 update. Image source: Facebook

Facebook’s privacy prompt informs users about the new iOS requirements, suggesting that users would be better off allowing Facebook to keep tracking them (emphasis ours):

This version of iOS requires us to ask for permission to track some data from this device to improve your ads. Learn how we limit the use of this information if you don’t turn on this device setting.

We use information about your activity received from other apps and websites to:

  • Show you ads that are more personalized
  • Help keep Facebook/Instagram free of charge
  • Support businesses that rely on ads to reach their customers

As you can see, Facebook’s message suggests that tracking users is what lets it offer its products free of charge. The implication is that the company might be forced to charge money for Facebook and Instagram in the future.

Users will start seeing these new prompts on iPhones and iPads running iOS 14.5 or later.

The prompts will likely appear in the Facebook and Instagram apps before Facebook displays the mandatory ATT prompt. You should start seeing these screens as soon as Facebook updates its apps for iOS 14.5. The company has already confirmed that it will abide by Apple’s new privacy rules, despite its protests. That means the Facebook apps should be updated soon, complete with Apple’s own tracking permission message:

App Tracking Transparency prompt coming to iPhone in iOS 14.5. Image source: Apple

Other app developers who track users online, including on the iPhone and iPad, have already started showing the ATT prompts. All of them will look like the example above. Developers will explain why they want to track users, in addition to asking for permission. Updates for apps that use such tracking features will not be approved by Apple unless they include the prompt.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.