Apple shows Facebook who has the power in an app dispute

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

When Facebook employees woke up Wednesday morning, many found they could not perform even the most basic work tasks.

Their calendars were not working. Nor were campus maps that help people find their co-workers. They were unable to check Facebook’s latest shuttle bus schedule. And they could not see what the company’s cafeterias were serving for lunch.

That’s because those features run on Facebook’s internal, custom-built iPhone apps — and Apple had shut them all down, according to nine current and former employees of the companies, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.

The situation stemmed from a dispute after Facebook violated Apple’s rules by publicly distributing a research app that allowed it to snoop on users’ online activity.

When Apple discovered the transgression this week, it revoked Facebook’s special access to apps and updates that run on its iPhone software.

That immediately cut off Facebook’s 35,000 workers from its internal iPhone apps. And the problem snowballed when mobile apps like Workplace and Messenger — two internal communication tools — also stopped working, frustrating employees and resulting in hours of lost productivity.

Late Thursday, Apple relented and restored Facebook’s access. Yet the episode was a stark reminder of where the power really lies in the technology world.

While Facebook is the world’s biggest social network, Apple controls the distribution of apps — including Facebook’s — on its phones.

That power is a long-standing concern for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, making his company beholden to the rules of others.

The spat underscored the tensions between two of Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies, which have competed for years over talent and new technologies.

Recently, each has taken potshots at the other over data privacy, with Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, trading slights with Zuckerberg in interviews.

Facebook also worked this past year with a public-relations firm, Definers Public Affairs, to urge reporters to scrutinize Apple and other tech companies. And Apple has made changes to some of its tech features that limit the ability of Facebook and others to track users.

Apple did not immediately have a comment Thursday after reinstating Facebook’s access to its internal apps. In a statement, Facebook said it was “getting our internal apps up and running” and added, “To be clear, this didn’t have an impact on our consumer-facing services.”

In an interview Wednesday, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said of the dispute with Apple, “Obviously we want to be in full compliance with all of our partners.”

She added that the Facebook research app at issue hadn’t been a secret and had been operated only with its users’ consent.

Apple also briefly demonstrated its power Thursday with another Silicon Valley giant, Google. Like Facebook, Google had violated Apple’s rules by publicly distributing an app, Screenwise Meter, through a special Apple developer program.

The internet search company said some of its internal apps that run on iPhone software were temporarily disrupted.

Two Google employees, who declined to be identified because they were not allowed to speak publicly on the matter, said iPhone apps for internal services like hailing a bus or viewing cafeteria information were not working. In addition, apps testing unreleased updates of Google products such as Gmail and Google Maps were unavailable, these people said. The disruptions were earlier reported by technology website The Verge.


A Google spokeswoman, Suzanne Blackburn, said in a statement that the company expected the issue to be resolved “soon.”

A spokesman for Apple, Tom Neumayr, said it was working with Google to reinstate access “very quickly.” He declined to comment on whether Apple had revoked Google’s access or if it was a technical glitch.

Apple’s dispute with Facebook this week was rooted in the social network’s practice of scooping up information on its users’ practices, a way for it to gain insight into their digital habits so it can improve products to keep consumers regularly coming back to its site.

In 2013, Facebook acquired Onavo, an Israeli company that collected information on how customers used every app on their phones. Onavo’s findings helped Facebook executives predict which apps were rising and trending across App Stores.

That gave Zuckerberg, who colleagues have said was highly dependent on the data, the foresight to try to buy Snapchat long before it went public. Although that effort failed, Facebook has built products, such as live video streams and group video chat, based on information gleaned from Onavo’s app.

Last year, Apple updated some of its privacy policies and forced Facebook to remove Onavo’s app from its App Store. But Onavo had other ways of collecting consumer data that bypassed some of Apple’s restrictions.

In 2016, the Onavo team had created a research app that vacuumed up all of a user’s phone and web activity; Facebook paid people ages 13 to 35 to install it. Then Facebook distributed the app under an Apple program with a special approval process if apps are used only for internal testing.

On Tuesday, the technology news site TechCrunch published a report detailing Facebook’s research app and its public use, which violated the rules of Apple’s program.

Facebook immediately pushed back on privacy concerns and said it was not tricking users with the research app.

“There was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App,” Arielle Argyres, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement. “It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear onboarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.”

She added that fewer than 5 percent of users in the research program were teenagers and that all had obtained signed parental consent forms.

Sidestepping rules
But Facebook had no comeback for sidestepping Apple’s rules. On Wednesday morning, Apple revoked Facebook’s “enterprise developer certificate” and paralysed the social giant from deploying its internal iPhone apps.

“Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple,” Tammy Levine, an Apple spokeswoman, said at the time.

“Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

Apple has been dealing with its own privacy problems. This week, a bug was discovered in its FaceTime app, whereby people could spy on the video and audio FaceTime calls of other users. Apple has pledged to fix the problem by the end of this week.

After Apple’s revocation, employees inside Facebook became furious with the Onavo team, according to four people familiar with the company’s deliberations.

Some said they would have to wait weeks to get app updates or changes approved through Apple’s App Store. Several employees in Facebook’s hardware division said they were considering quitting because they could not get any work done.

Late Thursday, after Apple relented, Facebook employees began seeing the next day’s lunch menu again, as well as their calendars and their shuttle bus schedules. Still, they said, Apple had made its point.

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