Is China about to take on Apple over App Tracking Transparency (ATT)?

There’s a common narrative among western marketers that China has a more than relaxed attitude to data privacy, data usage and data compliance.

Vague tales of companies trading databases, covert government surveillance and misuse of personal data have been a common discourse in Medialand over the last decade, with western marketers relying on through-the-grape-vine anecdotes to form an opinion on a media landscape that is admittedly alien to our own.

This week we've had some concrete insight into data privacy in China, with western news outlets reporting the country’s seemingly direct challenge to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) policy.

Evolving data regulation and attitudes to data in China

Since China released the first draft of their GDPR-style data protection policy, Personal Data Protection Law (PDPL), back in October there’s been a general assumption that the country is trying to align with the rest of the world with data regulation and compliance.

In addition to PDPL, in January of this year a government-backed consumer watchdog report by the China Consumers Association (CCA) criticised the country’s tech giants for violating consumer tech rights, including conducting algorithmic pricing discrimination where consumers are shown differing prices for products and services based on the data known about them as individuals.

This public move by the government to support data regulation can be attributed to a rise in consumer expectation in China around data privacy. Although many Chinese consumers are resigned to the fact their data isn’t protected and never will be, there are stories of consumers now refusing to use everyday services because they are expected to trade vast amounts of data for something as simple as buying a cinema ticket.

So where does Apple come in?

Chinese tech firms navigating around ATT

This week it’s been reported that some of the country’s biggest tech giants, ByteDance (Tik Tok) and Tencent, are testing workarounds to Apple’s ATT policy - ATT has been pitched as a way to give users more control over how their data is tracked and used for advertising purposes by prompting users to grant tracking by approving tracking via their IDFA.

The new workaround is called CAID and has been created by the state-backed China Advertising Association to act as a substitute for IDFA, essentially giving Chinese apps a new way of tracking users which goes against Apple’s main reason for introducing the policy in the first place.

This very direct and public challenge to ATT shows what’s at stake for Chinese tech firms and, in turn, the Chinese government when individual-based tracking is removed from their armoury. It also brings into question the country's commitment to improving data privacy that has been seemingly moving in the right direction over the last year or so.

At the time of writing this article Apple haven’t commented on the use of CAID and its ability to circumnavigate ATT, but it represents a significant challenge to Apple and their policy. Apple have previously said that there will be no exceptions to IDFA alternatives and they will ban any apps that attempt to do so.

Can Apple afford to ban all Chinese apps from the app store?

It’s one thing going up against Facebook and Google in the data privacy war, but it’s another going up against one of the world’s most powerful governments.

Watch this space…