Safari Logo
Safari logo. Oorehov/Wikimedia Commons

A new feature coming to Apple’s web browser Safari that promises users more privacy by limiting the capabilities of advertisers to track users around the web has the advertising industry up in arms.

With the launch of the latest version of Safari in iOS 11 and for macOS High Sierra, Apple is introducing a new feature called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) that will place new limits on how websites and advertisers can track user behavior across the internet.

ITP limits the use of cookies—tiny pieces of identifiable data that is generated to remember information about a user—for ad targeting to just 24 hours and deletes cookies entirely if a user doesn’t return to a website for more than 30 days, thereby limiting the amount of information an advertiser can glean about a user.

The limited window for cookie tracking should be an improvement to user privacy as they browse online, but advertisers are less than thrilled about the modification and have asked Apple to rethink its approach to cookie tracking.

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Six advertising trade groups including the Interactive Advertising Bureau, American Advertising Federation and the Association of National Advertisers signed on to an open letter addressing Apple’s changes and accused the company of attempting to “sabotage” the current economics of the web.

In the letter, which was obtained and published by AdWeek, the advertising groups wrote:

“The infrastructure of the modern Internet depends on consistent and generally applicable standards for cookies, so digital companies can innovate to build content, services and advertising that are personalized for users and remember their visits. Apple’s Safari move breaks those standards and replaces them with an amorphous set of shifting rules that will hurt the user experience and sabotage the economic model for the Internet.”

The advertisers are correct in assessing that cookies are an important part of the digital ecosystem and allow for personalization and improved functionality on sites. Cookies are used to remember a user’s login information, for example.

However, those are first-party cookies provided by the site itself. Advertisers often get their information through third-party cookies or their own first-party cookies embedded in different sites that track a user around the web. Apple is taking aim at those cookies in particular, and will use a machine learning process to differentiate between the cookies that are essential to the online experience and the ones only designed to collect information for advertisers.

The trade organizations also suggested Apple was taking a “unilateral and heavy-handed approach” that would be bad for consumer choice and bad for ad-supported content and services that will be stuck displaying generic ads instead of ones targeted toward a specific visitor.

It’s not clear what consumer choice the advertisers are referring to, as there is no real choice in advertising—it is generated for the user based on their activity. They do have the choice to block it entirely, and many do—as many as 30 percent worldwide, according to PageFair.

In response to the letter, Apple offered little apology for its approach. “Ad tracking technology has become so pervasive that it is possible for ad tracking companies to recreate the majority of a person’s web browsing history,” an Apple spokesperson said. “This information is collected without permission and is used for ad re-targeting, which is how ads follow people around the Internet.”