Apple’s ‘Intelligent Tracking Prevention’ will arrive on iPhones and iPads tomorrow as iOS 11 is rolled out, preventing third parties from tracking Safari users for more than 24 hours. The update will make life more difficult for advertisers reliant on third party data, as well as for the publishers who support themselves via these advertisers, and six trade groups have penned an open letter complaint against Apple in response.
The new anti-tracking technology, announced earlier this year at WWDC, will also arrive on the desktop version of Safari when macOS High Sierra is released later this month. Safari already blocks third-party cookies by default, but now cross-site tracking will be made more difficult, as websites will have cookies partitioned and deleted if users don’t return regularly to any website which tracks users.
Safari will identify, via machine learning, which domains have the ability to track users across the web. Any cookies stored by these domains will be usable in a third-party context for 24 hours, after which they will be partitioned: stored, but unable to be used in a third-party context. If a user hasn’t visited the original domain in 30 days, the cookies will be purged.
Apple has painted Intelligent Tracking Prevention as a tool for boosting user privacy. “It’s not about blocking ads, the web behaves as it always did, but your privacy is protected,” explained Craig Federighi, SVP of software engineering, at the announcement back in June.
But the advertising industry disagrees. Six trade groups, including the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Association of National Advertisers, and the 4 A’s, called Apple’s approach “heavy handed” and “bad for consumers” in an open letter. “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,” they said in the letter. “Put simply, machine-driven cookie choices do not represent user choice; they represent browser-manufacturer choice.”
Apple retaliated, saying that the new technology protects users against tracking that is so pervasive it allows websites to “recreate the majority of a person’s web browsing history”. Many commentators however have pointed out that Intelligent Tracking Prevention won’t really affect big domains like Facebook and Google which users visit daily, but will mostly punish smaller publishers. “This move represents an escalation in the arms race between those who control the user experience and those seeking to more effectively draw insights from users” wrote Alan Chapell, president at Chapell & Associates, for AdExchanger. “Make no mistake: Apple is using its considerable marketplace power to help pick winners and losers in digital media.”