How Companies Like Google Control Our Privacy and Our Data

“Inside the app, click on the Me tab, tap the settings icon and select Privacy. Under default privacy settings, select Private,” he explained. “Then, under the ‘More’ section in Privacy, click ‘Past Transactions’ and make sure to set that to ‘Change All to Private.’”

Got all that? I did, and changed my settings, too, as I had also been in the dark.

The bigger problem is not the sometimes ridiculous difficulty of opting out, it’s that consumers often aren’t even aware of what their settings allow, or what it all means. If they were truly informed and actively choosing among the available options, the default setting would matter little, and be of little to no value.

But companies expect users to accept what they’re given, not know their options or not have the constant vigilance required to keep track of the available options, however limited they may be. Since the power in the industry is concentrated among few gatekeepers, and the technology is opaque and its consequences hard to foresee, default settings are some of the most important ways for companies to keep collecting and using data as they want.

So, how much are default settings worth?

In April 2021, Apple changed the default settings on iPhones and other devices so that users could not be tracked automatically via a unique identifier assigned to their Apple device. For many companies, and even for entire industries whose business models are based on tracking people online, it was a cataclysmic event. No longer would people have to opt out of such tracking by going into their settings and changing the permissions. Now the apps had to ask for and receive explicit permission before they could have access to that identifier.

In 2021, Snap, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were estimated to have lost about $10 billion in total because of the change. In early 2022, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it alone stood to lose $10 billion. Industries like mobile gaming, in which revenue largely depends on tracking users, also suffered.