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France refuses to block Apple’s big privacy changes

March 17, 2021, 11:37 AM UTC

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The online ad industry has been trying to stymie Apple’s latest privacy enhancements by claiming they amount to an antitrust violation. However, early signs suggest the effort may be doomed.

On Wednesday, the French Competition Authority refused to tell Apple to hold off implementing the changes, which will stop apps tracking iPhone and iPad users without their explicit consent, or force Apple to negotiate with app developers.

The watchdog said what Apple was doing did not appear to be abusive, as “a company, even if it is in a dominant position…has the freedom in principle to set rules to access its services, subject to not disregarding the laws and applicable regulations and that these rules are not anticompetitive.”

However, although the Competition Authority did not grant the “interim measures” that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) France and others had been seeking, it said it would continue investigating the merits of the case to see if Apple’s new privacy rules allow the company itself to track users more than others can.

Apple announced the contentious changes in June last year and was due to implement them in the fall, but complaints from Facebook and much of the ad industry led it to delay the move until early this year. Apple said in January that the changes would finally arrive in early spring.

The iPhone maker attaches a unique code to each device, known as Identification for Advertisers, or IDFA. Advertisers can use this tag to monitor what users do in apps and how they interact with ad campaigns.

However, app developers will now have to get users to explicitly opt into being tracked in this way, before being able to access the IDFA. This new framework, called App Tracking Transparency, or ATT, is more compliant with the strict data-protection rules that have recently appeared in Europe—but advertisers complain it will make it harder for them to track how successful their campaigns are.

Their French complaint against Apple is very close in spirit to one lodged against Google in the U.K. over that company’s disabling of third-party tracking cookies in the Chrome browser. There, the British Competition and Markets Authority is currently investigating whether the shift will make advertisers even more reliant on Google than they currently are.

In the meantime, Apple warmly greeted the French regulator’s Wednesday move as an endorsement of its pro-privacy changes.

“We’re grateful to the French Competition Authority for recognizing that App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 is in the best interest of French iOS users,” it said in a statement. “ATT will provide a powerful user privacy benefit by requiring developers to ask users’ permission before sharing their data with other companies for the purposes of advertising, or with data brokers.

“We firmly believe that users’ data belongs to them, and that they should control when that data is shared, and with whom,” Apple said.

The IAB had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.