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Facebook, Apple and the Ticking Privacy Time-Bomb

Executive Creative Director

by Mike Cronin, Executive Creative Director

The recent Facebook data scandal and ensuing war of words between Tim Cook of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook have again opened up the debate about how brands handle private user information.

But there’s a deeper layer to this story that could easily get overlooked, and it goes straight to the heart of who each brand is truly trying to serve.

First, let’s revisit each CEO’s comments. In regard to Facebook’s handling of user data, Cook said, “The truth is, [Apple] could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer — if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that.” Zuckerberg took offense, saying, “At Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use. I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people.”

Now, let’s dissect what they’re really saying. When Cook talks about Apple’s “customers,” he’s talking about people who buy and use Apple products and services. Apple’s customers ARE its users. They are one in the same. For Apple, keeping customers happy means essentially the same thing as keeping users happy.

Not so at Facebook. Facebook’s users ARE NOT its customers. Advertisers are. Brands (and agencies like ours) are keeping the lights on at Facebook. As Cook implies, Facebook’s product is, in effect, its users. It makes money selling advertisers access to its users by leveraging data that is accurate and robust enough to ensure those advertisers’ messages get in front of the right eyeballs. That doesn’t mean Facebook doesn’t care about users. Obviously, it needs to keep users signing up, logging in and refreshing their feed again and again. But for Facebook, keeping users happy and keeping customers means two different things.

Remember the old adage “The customer is always right?” How does Facebook reconcile this? Who would Zuckerberg say is always right?

Facebook may continue to reassure users about how much care it takes with their data, but collecting and selling access to accurate, robust–and often highly sensitive–user data will never go away at Facebook. (At least not until the company starts turning its users into customers by offering something like a paid, non-ad supported version of the platform. A move Zuckerberg recently hinted at during his time in front of Congress.)

Zuckerberg is clearly trying to paint Apple as not looking out for the average person. (“Facebook is free! Free I tell you!”) But time and again, Apple has proven itself as a brand that is highly protective of user data and privacy. So much so, it’s willing to fight the government to protect it and to lose out on a large revenue stream from potential advertisers. The question is, who is Facebook really out to serve? If it is users (as Zuckerberg suggests), what actions will he take to back that up?

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