Apple Moves to Block Trackers in Safari as It Reportedly Mulls an Advertising Network

The brand is quietly ramping up mobile ad offerings

Apple's shots at Facebook come as it's reportedly considering its own ad network. Getty Images

Apple wasn’t shy about bashing Facebook on Monday as the Cupertino giant announced more restrictions on ad tracking tools in its latest version of Safari.

But less commented upon at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference was a recent Wall Street Journal report claiming that Apple has been shopping around a new mobile advertising platform to app companies such as Pinterest and Snap. The move would up the competition between Apple and advertising giants like Facebook and Google at the same time that Apple is using Safari to wage war on them by restricting the ad trackers on which they rely.

Spokespeople for Pinterest and Snap declined to comment on the report, and Apple did not immediately respond to our email.

Apple likes to cast itself as a steadfast protector of consumer privacy in a tech industry largely built on collecting and selling personal information. Its hardware-centric portfolio allows it to cast aspersions from on high at the dirty business of online advertising.

But new hardware was notably absent at this week’s WWDC. Instead, Apple observers were treated to Snapchat-like filters, Bitmoji ripoffs and other features more akin to a social platform than a computer company (among many other various software updates).

The Wall Street Journal’s Apple sources claimed that the company pulled in nearly $1 billion in revenue last year from its App Store search ads alone. That may be a comparatively small fraction of the company’s total haul—and the total digital ads market at that—but, if the report is correct, it’s already approximately on par with Snap’s entire ad revenue, as estimated by Emarketer.

This isn’t the first time Apple has tried its hand at an advertising network. Its last attempt to sell and distribute ads across apps, iAd, failed in 2016. Apple may have had high hopes for the network when it launched in 2010; it was estimated then to account for one-half of the infant mobile ad market at the time. But by the time it shut down, lower-cost competitors had forced it down to an estimated 5 percent, according to Emarketer.

After that, Apple’s advertising operation retreated to promotional search results in its App Store, but the reported big success of that program is, perhaps, causing it to rethink other avenues into the business.

Those ambitions could cast its recent Safari privacy crackdown in a new light. Apple first allowed users to block tracking cookies and certain types of ads within the browser late last year. This week, it further restricted embedded “like” and “share” buttons that follow users around the web.

Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos claimed on Twitter that such outside web tracking makes up a relatively small portion of the company’s overall business.

Susan Bidel, a Forrester analyst who focuses on online marketing and advertising, said Apple’s move into mobile ad selling wouldn’t necessarily conflict with its image as a champion of consumer privacy.

“My assumption is that if Apple is launching an in-app ad business, they will be selling ads in apps that consumers have requested or even paid for and intentionally downloaded in full understanding of the terms of use, of their opportunity to opt out, and including the presence of advertising. That allows Apple to say that they are only selling ads to people who have agreed to receive them. That’s completely in keeping with notions of privacy,” Bidel said. “It also likely gives Apple the data they need to deliver relevant ads, too, making the whole experience more palatable to consumers.”

Safari only boasts a 17 percent share of the worldwide browser market on mobile and 5 percent on desktop, according to Statcounter, so Apple’s capacity to exert its will over online advertising is limited. No doubt, the company cares about the user experience in its browser. But the fight it’s picking with ad tech could still benefit its new push into more mobile advertising.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.