Bring on the Regs, Says Apple

The privacy debate reaches a tipping point, as Apple CEO Tim Cook calls government regulation of user data “inevitable.”

At some point, we all move from the state of denial to acceptance, if only to get ahead of the game. That appears to be where Apple CEO Tim Cook apparently stands on the all-important issue of tech-privacy.

Indeed, while many tech leaders continue to resist outside change, Cook said in an interview this week that the free market on privacy data wasn’t working—and that regulation of data storage and protection is now “inevitable.” It’s a comment, coming from one the world’s most valuable companies, that’s bound to reverberate not just through the tech industry, but through retail, banking, healthcare, media and other industries.

“You rarely see the CEO of such a prominent company step up and publicly admit that they would accept more regulation,” says Nels Olson, vice chairman and co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “It underscores how all CEOs need to understand that this is an issue they need to address.”

The increasing number of data breaches, identity thefts, and other violations, coupled with social media harassment and political tension, has brought the privacy debate to a tipping point this year. “The more stories that come out exposing governance or mismanagement of user data, the more consumer trust continues to erode, amping up regulators more to act,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director, corporate affairs, with Korn Ferry.

To be sure, experts suggest that Cook isn’t so much accepting government regulation of user data as he is pushing for it. One reason for that is because Apple relies much less than its competitors on user data to make money and curate personalized experiences. “Apple’s focus is on making money through their product and not on the experience their customers enjoy with them,” says Jamen Graves, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry in San Francisco. With consumers ever more suspicious about who is managing sensitive data, being more transparent about transparency helps Apple build trust, which, in turn, allows it to charge a premium for its products. You pay more, but you get more privacy and security.

Experts caution, however, that potential government regulation won’t be a panacea for privacy concerns. Regulation isn’t going to suddenly stop unscrupulous companies from seeking to make money off user data in a way that goes against their values, policies, and beliefs about privacy. “It is not surprising that the government will be asked to attempt some form of regulation so that people are protected,” says Graves. “But there is only so much any government can do against this massive challenge. They just don’t have the resources or ‘know how’ to keep up.”