The privacy battle that Apple is not waging

For at least a decade, privacy advocates dreamed of a “Do not track” parameter. Now, at least in the most populous state in the United States, that dream has come true. So why Apple, a company that increasingly uses confidentiality as a selling point—Help customers to take advantage of it?

When California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act in 2018, it was accompanied by a large asterisk. In theory, the law gives California residents the right to tell websites not to sell their personal data. In practice, exercising this right means by clicking on an endless number of privacy policies and cookie notices, one by one, on each site you visit. Only a masochist or privacy enthusiast would bother to click on cookie settings every time they look up a menu or buy a vacuum cleaner. Privacy will remain, for most people, a right that only exists on paper until there is an easy, one-click way to turn off tracking across the Internet.

The good news is that this ideal is getting closer and closer to reality. While the CCPA does not explicitly mention a blanket exclusion, regulations interpreting the law issued by the California Attorney General in 2020 specified that companies should honor one, just as they do with individual claims. The technology for a universal opt-out did not yet exist, but last fall a coalition of companies, nonprofits and publishers unveiled a technical specification for global privacy control that can send a CCPA enforceable “Do Not Track” signal at the browser or device level.

Today, if you live in California, you can enable Global Privacy Control by using a privacy browser like Brave or by downloading a privacy extension, like DuckDuck Go or Privacy Badger, whatever browser you are already using. (Seriously, go ahead. The full list of options is here.) Once you do, you will automatically tell the sites you are visiting “Do not sell my personal information” without having to click anything. decent size company that does business in California will be legally obligated to comply, which requires adding a few lines of code to their website.

The state of CCPA enforcement remains murky as some companies object to the attorney general’s broad interpretation of the law. But the California government has started to make it clear that it intends to enforce the global privacy control requirement. (Most recently passed The California Privacy Rights Act, which will come into full force in 2023, makes this requirement more explicit.)

Mid-July, Digiday reported that Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office had “sent at least 10 and possibly more than 20 letters from companies urging them to honor the GPC.” And an item appeared on a recent listing CCPA enforcement action on the attorney general’s website, noting that a company was forced to start honoring the signal.

Now for the bad news. While it’s much easier to install a privacy extension or browser than it is to click through a million privacy pages, the vast majority of people are still unlikely to do so. (It remains to be seen whether DuckDuckGo line the highways and American cities with billboards will inspire a new wave of privacy connoisseurs.)

It matters a bit, because online privacy rights are collective, not individual. The problem with ubiquitous tracking isn’t just that it can allow someone to access your personal location data and use it to ruin your life, like recently happened to a Catholic priest whose commercially available Grindr data revealed a tendency to frequent gay bars. Even if you personally choose not to follow, you still live in a world shaped by surveillance. Tracking-based advertising contributes to the decline of quality publications by eating away at the premium that advertisers pay to reach their audience. Cheaper to find these readers on social media or even on extremist background news sites. It drives the incentive to relentlessly maximize engagement on social media platforms. None of this will go away until a critical mass of people decides not to be followed in all areas.

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