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Has Apple's CEO put a price tag on privacy?

Apple's Tim Cook attacked his competitors this week for their stances on data privacy. But has this become a battle between the Ads and Ad-Nots?

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Apple CEO Tim Cook listens to questions during a news conference at IBM Watson headquarters, in New York.

Richard Drew/AP/FILE

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On Monday, Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook received a “Champions of Freedom” honor from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based “open Internet” research group. Accepting remotely, Mr. Cook used his speech to champion Apple’s role in consumer privacy, and to argue that his competitors have an unhealthy appetite for customer data.

“Like many of you, we at Apple reject the idea that our customers should have to make tradeoffs between privacy and security,” Cook says. "I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information.”

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Cook never mentioned competitors by name, but many hear his remarks about the excesses of data collection as a pointed attack against Google and Facebook. Google, for example, recently unveiled a new Photos service that, while costing nothing to the user, Cook believes still comes at a high price.

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“You might like these so-called free services,” Cook says, “but we don't think they're worth having your e-mail or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose. And we think, someday, customers will see this for what it is.”

Compared to the other members of technology’s “Big Four” – Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon – Apple has far less of a stake in advertising revenue and data collection. Even Amazon, which ostensibly just sells products online, aggregates large amounts of user data to better advertise its merchandise.

"They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it,” Cook continues. “We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be."

In response to Cook’s statements, Google and Facebook pointed to their privacy and advertising policies, which assert that data is collected in a way that maintains consumer privacy.

“Apple is the behemoth of ‘we don’t monetize your stuff,’ but they have in the past,” says Joe Hall, a technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington nonprofit that focuses on Internet privacy. “They have ad revenue – [but] it’s not on the scale of the other companies.”

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Cook argues that Apple collects “the minimum amount of data necessary to create great experiences.” Apple has taken the stance that bulk data collection services infringe on a customer’s privacy. Cook believes that “when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” In Apple’s view, there are two kinds of tech companies: those that profit off the data of consumers and those that profit off the products it sells to consumers. To Cook, only the latter kind upholds a customer’s privacy.

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Mr. Hall agrees that data-collection-based companies have drawbacks. “There’s a lot of bad things that can happen if you’re over-collecting,” he says. “You can have government data requests [demanding access to information] and data breaches for data you’ve never even used.”

But Hall is also worried that Apple’s mindset, if taken to its extreme, may prove dangerous to consumer privacy.

“You have to be very careful about commoditizing everything,” Hall says. “If you have to pay money to privatize, it becomes an elitist thing.”

Many have voiced concerns about putting a price tag on privacy, believing that it not only limits a consumer’s choices, but makes what many consider a basic human right something only proffered to the wealthy.

Hall says this concern stems from the disconnect between companies collecting data and the general consumer. “Consumers don’t always understand the bargain they’re making,” Hall says.

For users dealing with privacy, it’s always a bargain between the company and the data. And the only way to maintain data privacy, according to Hall, is to know the resources. Right now, those resources are firmly planted with those who can afford them.

Hall says that the industry will get better if the “Big Four” group expands to include more voices. Rather than watching a few, major players dictating the rules for privacy control, he hopes growing companies can introduce new tools that will give users greater control over their personal data – control that will not come with a price tag.

“There are so many underprivileged people out there who could benefit from these tools," he says, "but won’t if it costs money."