Apple Cripples Facebook Developer Operations In Policy Violation Power Play, Who's Next?

Facebook is the largest social networking site on the planet, but if comparing market caps, Apple is nearly twice as big. They are not direct competitors, of course, but the relevance here is that Apple wields considerable power, and it reminded Facebook of this earlier this week when it revoked the social network's developer privileges on iOS.

It's not clear if the ban is a temporary (likely) or permanent (unlikely) one. Either way, it is an interesting power play on Apple's part. So, what exactly happened?

Earlier this week, it was widely reported that Facebook was paying teenagers and adults to install an app called Facebook Research VPN. In a sense, it's spyware (not technically), or at least the VPN app operates in a similar fashion—it's designed to monitor and collect all kinds of user activity (location data, private messages, and so forth), similar to Facebook's previously banned Onavo Protect app. In other words, it spies on users, albeit with their consent.

These kinds of apps run afoul of Apple's privacy policy, so Facebook sidestepped the restriction by distributing it through Apple's Developer Enterprise Program. This program allows approved partners test and distribute apps for their own employees. And that's what Facebook did, while paying participants between the ages of 13 and 35 up to $20 per month, plus referral fees. According to TechCrunch, which broke the story, Apple also administered it through several beta testing services (Applause, BetaBound, and uTest) to conceal its involvement, and to extend the app's reach to consumers.

This did not sit kindly with Apple.

"We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. 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 said in a statement.

Part of what's interesting about Apple's statement is the plural use of "certificates." This indicates that not only did it ban the VPN app, but all of Facebook's developer apps. Subsequently, there are reports that thousands of Facebook employees are now unable to access the company's internal iOS apps, which is causing a bit of chaos within the company.

Facebook is not happy about how all of this has gone down, and it issued a statement of its own to clarify some things.

"Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms," Facebook said.

Whatever the case might be, Facebook has managed to tick off Apple, and that is having repercussions. Even though Facebook and Apple are not direct competitors, the former heavily relies on the latter to remain relevant. Imagine if Apple decided to ban Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. There would be plenty of blow back on Apple, and so it's highly unlikely that would happen. But it would also be a big disruption to Facebook's business, even if just temporary.

In any event, all we can do is sit back and see how all this plays out.