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Apple’s Tim Cook: I would have avoided Facebook’s privacy mess

Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook spoke about Apple, Facebook and Amazon in Chicago on March 28. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Apple chief executive Tim Cook took some swipes at a couple of fellow tech giants Wednesday, appearing to accuse Facebook of selling its customers as products and taking aim at Amazon's bid to find a home for its new campus.

During a Chicago town hall event with MSNBC and the technology news website Recode, Cook was asked what he would do if he were in the shoes of Mark Zuckerberg right now. The Facebook CEO is sinking deeper into a public relations crisis over accusations that his company did not properly protect users' privacy.

“What would I do? I wouldn't be in that situation,” Cook replied.

MSNBC plans to broadcast the entire town hall April 6. But the network released clips this week in which Cook implicitly savaged Facebook, as it faces user boycotts and a possible congressional inquiry over revelations that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained personal data from millions of the social network's users.

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Cook, whose company became rich by selling laptops, iPhones and other devices at premium prices, has long been a critic of Facebook and other social media giants that charge most users nothing for participating in their networks but instead market the data that people surrender when they sign up.

“If we monetized our customer, if our customer was our product, we could make a ton of money,” Cook said. “We've elected not to do that.”

Cook had said this before. “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product,” he wrote in a sort of open letter to Apple customers in 2014.

Zuckerberg mocked Cook's “ridiculous concept” at the time. “What, you think because you're paying Apple that you're somehow in alignment with them?” the Facebook CEO told Time. “If you were in alignment with them, then they’d make their products a lot cheaper!”

But that spat was years ago, when Facebook was a golden child of the tech industry, long before the public learned about Cambridge Analytica.

On Wednesday, after Zuckerberg had apologized for the scandal in full-page ads, Cook's remarks drew wild applause from his audience in Chicago.

“You are not our product,” Cook declared. “You are our customer. You are a jewel, and we care about the user experience, and we're not going to traffic in your personal life.”

Cook told the town hall that Facebook and other social media companies should have restrained themselves from building “detailed profiles of people” and that, having failed to do so, the government would likely need to do it for them.

“I think the best regulation is no regulation, is self-regulation,” Cook said. “However, I think we’re beyond that here.”

MSNBC has uploaded only scattered clips from the event, so it's not always clear in what context Cook is speaking. But at one point he called privacy a “human right ... a civil liberty,” and he appeared to contrast Apple's tight restriction on outside developers with Facebook's app policies.

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“We're looking at every app in detail: What is it doing? Is it doing what it's saying it's doing? Is it meeting the privacy policy that they're saying?” Cook told the audience.

Cook also took a swipe at another tech giant, Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. The online retailer has been criticized by President Trump, among others, who accuse it of taking advantage of tax loopholes to compete unfairly with other retailers.

MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked Cook about Amazon's much-publicized search for a location for its new campus.

“What do you think about the beauty contest model?” Hayes asked. “I'm watching cities line up to throw subsidies — in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars — to get them to come.”

“I don't condemn it,” Cook said. “I think it's their decision.” However, he went on to say: “But from our point of view, we didn't want to create this contest. You wind up putting people through a ton of work to select one. That is a case where you have a winner and a lot of losers. I don't like that.”

The crowd applauded again. And again, Cook was simply restating something he's said in the past.

In January, Reuters reported, Cook announced that he would not mimic Amazon's methods as Apple quietly searches for a city in which to build its own new campus. “We prevent this auction kind of process that we want to stay out of,” he said at the time.

But as Reuters noted, many cities were treating Apple's selection like a pageant anyway.

“We’re going to go compete, and we’re going to put our best foot forward,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the news outlet.

Two months later, Cook would speak at the town hall in the same city.

More reading:

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