Today, let’s talk about one of Apple’s many announcements this week at the Worldwide Developer Conference, which some see as a potential threat to the rise of email-distributed journalism. If that sounds self-indulgent, since it comes from a journalist who distributes his work via email, I apologise. But it touches on so many of the topics that interest us here: a tech giant’s ability to reshape markets to its will; how journalism will navigate the platform era; what we mean when we talk about privacy – that i hope i can pique your interest at least a little.
Start with the announcement. On Monday, at WWDC, Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection, which limits the amount of data people who send you emails can collect about you. This is how the company describes it:
In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection prevents senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. The new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email, and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.
When you finally update your iPhone to iOS 15 this fall, you’ll see a screen at launch inviting you to sign up.
Let’s assume most Apple Mail users choose it. How necessary is this data for setting up email-based businesses? The past day I have read and heard a lot of disagreement.
A brief background for the non-email obsessives. Long ago, email marketers started incorporating invisible pixels into the emails they send you; when you open their messages, those pixels are loaded, telling the sender that you have read their message, and possibly also deducing your location from your IP address.
Collectively, the percentage of people who actually open emails is known as the open rate, and it’s one of the most important metrics senders measure to gauge the effectiveness of what they’re doing. It gives you an idea of how engaged your audience is and how that engagement changes over time.
At the same time, there is a fairly long tradition of people who find this scary. The email startup Superhuman had to apologize in 2019 after a viral blog post explained how the company tracked when, where and how often people opened emails sent through its service. the layout, a nonprofit newsroom that often focuses on data privacy, has turned down eight potential email providers before you find one that agrees to disable tracking capabilitiesmogelijkheden.
Last year, when Basecamp launched the Hey email service, it made blocking tracking pixels a marquee. In a blog post today, David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of Basecamp – not a fan of Apple in general! – declared victory against tracking pixels. He wrote:
Given Apple’s monopoly advantage with their Mail app pre-installed, we don’t need much knowledge of what they call Mail Privacy Protection to break the dam on spy pixels. You can’t really say anything authoritative about open rates if 5-10-30-50% of your recipients are protected from snooping, because you don’t know if that’s why your spy pixel isn’t tripping, or because they’re just opening you not your email.
There is also no way users will voluntarily accept the premise of spy pixels if Apple presents the privacy threats as clearly and honestly as we have in HEY. Apple already showed that with their drive to block unique ad IDs for cross-app tracking in iOS 14.5: 96% of users in the US have refused to let apps track them like this! And email spy pixels are much worse and much scarier.
Let’s fix a few things beforehand. First off, most people still don’t know that these spy pixels exist. Two, if they did, most people probably wouldn’t allow them if given the choice. Third, most of these spy pixels are used for marketing purposes – efforts to better target you for ecommerce. I don’t think it’s irrational at all to look at the state of things like Apple did, and say hell with that.
At the same time, email-based publishing has been one of the few bright spots for journalism in recent years. (It has certainly been a bright spot for me!) Media companies from Facebook to Twitter to the New York Times are now investing heavily in newsletter strategies; new email based publishers are appears every week. Much of this is due to the success of Substack, which I use to publish Platformer (see disclosure).
So it’s no surprise that some observers look at Mail Privacy Protection and see a threat. “This is another sign that Apple’s war on targeted ads isn’t just about cheating Facebook,” said Joshua Benton wrote in Nieman Lab. “They’re also coming for your Substack.”
Benton brings some powerful numbers to back up his concerns: “The most recent market share figures from Litmus, before May 2021, 93.5% of all email opened on phones ends up in Apple Mail on iPhones or iPads,” he writes. “On desktop, Apple Mail on Mac is responsible for 58.4% of all email is opened.”
It seems clear that Apple’s move to remove detailed customer data from email senders will have an impact on the email economy. But after talking to today’s newsletter writers and media executives, I’m not sure those involved in email journalism need to worry that much about the service.
“The advertising industry has become addicted to tracking, prioritizing the bottom funnel metrics at the expense of great content and creative material. It’s tragic,” said Alex Kantrowitz, author of the free, ad-supported newsletter Great technology. (He previously covered the industry for) Advertising Age.) “And that’s why people hate ads and ad companies.”
Kantrowitz told me that his ad inventory sold out in the first half of the year, thanks to a premium audience he identified not by pixel-based tracking, but by an old-fashioned readership survey. (the layouthas also used reader surveys to build a picture of its user base.)
“Pixel blocking makes postings like this more valuable and gives quality email newsletters an edge over the clutter that clogs most people’s inboxes,” Kantrowitz said.
For ad-based newsletters, Mail Privacy Protection is likely to encourage publishers to find other ways to understand their audiences. But what about paid newsletters, like this column’s?
Apple’s move may have even less impact on reader-supported newsletters, publishing industry executives told me today. Writers can determine reader engagement from numerous metrics still available to them, including the views their stories get on the web, the overall growth of their mailing list, and most meaningfully of all, the growth of their income.
The media world is changing so fast that I don’t think it’s irrational at all to read about a move like Apple’s this week and assume it will be bad for journalism. But in this case it seems like a false alarm to me. There are a number of changes that major email providers, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, could make that would make life harder for newsletter-based businesses. But in the end, I don’t think spy pixel blocking is one of them.
That said, I can’t end without pointing out the ways Apple itself benefits from cracking down on email data collection. The first is obvious: it further polishes the company’s privacy credentials, part of an ongoing and incredibly successful public relations campaign to build user trust at a time of collapsing trust in institutions.
Taken together, the numerous iOS 15 features focused on user privacy combine to put more pressure on the digital advertising ecosystem. Perhaps most notably, “Private Relay” — available to paying subscribers to Apple’s iCloud+ service — encrypts all traffic leaving a user’s device, making it harder for advertisers to track.
One of my more cynical friends sees all this as a way to get more companies to build apps, offer in-app purchases, and promote them with Apple’s advertising products. Marketing emails don’t work as well as they used to? Looks like it’s time to buy keywords from the App Store!
And what about creators who want to move away from the ad model? Apple will be there, ready and waiting to get a 30 percent discount on Twitter Super Follows, paid podcasts and Facebook events with tickets.
It is sometimes said that Amazon’s ultimate goal is to reduce all economic activity. When I look at Apple’s privacy measures this week, I’m usually willing to take them for granted — as a necessary counterbalance to the inexorable rise of tracking technologies on the Internet. But it also seems clear that the value to Apple goes well beyond customer satisfaction — and as revenue from advertising and in-app purchases grows, we’d do well to watch its policies gradually reshape the economy.
This column was co-published with platform game, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.