Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook has never been the most outspoken executive.
He's not brash nor does he publicly revel in his company's success on social media. While some executives use public speeches, Twitter, and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) to bash their rivals, Cook generally stays above the fray. A glance at his Twitter feed shows a sparsely updated account full of dull, positive sentiment -- and that has more or less been the man's public persona.
Cook has done an excellent job taking over for Steve Jobs, an iconic leader who casts an enormous shadow, but he has done that largely by letting his work speak for itself. That made it all the more notable when he delivered a speech recently that called out two of his major rivals. He did not name the companies, but it was very clear who he was targeting: Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Facebook.
What did Cook say?
Cook was honored at the EPIC Champions of Freedom event in Washington, but he addressed the crowd from a remote location. He spoke about guarding customer privacy, ensuring security, and protecting each user's right to encryption. These are issues the CEO has been passionate about in the past and he did not pull any punches at the EPIC event.
"Like many of you, we at Apple reject the idea that our customers should have to make trade-offs between privacy and security," Cook opened, reported TechCrunch. "We can, and we must provide both in equal measure. We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demand it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it."
He explained that companies have made turning over personal information feel like the norm, which has lulled customers into complacency. "They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be," he added.
Cook detailed that while Apple uses personal data in products like Apple Pay, it does not force customers to trade that information in order to use products. Though he did not mention Google and Facebook, it was clear which companies he was referring to (along with others, of course).
"We don't think you should ever have to trade it for a service you think is free but actually comes at a very high cost. This is especially true now that we're storing data about our health, our finances and our homes on our devices," Cook said. He continued:
We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don't think they're worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.
The family photo line was a thinly veiled crack at Google, which recently launched a new "free" photo storage product.
Why did Cook say it?
It's a case of practicing what you preach, though it's worth noting that Apple does not primarily have an ad-supported business, so it's easier for the company to take a stand on this issue.
Cook has a point
Companies like Google and Facebook don't force customers to turn over personal data. Anyone has the right to use or not use their products and services. Where Cook is correct is that, in many cases, consumers have become too trusting and too willing to give over data that they should be protecting.
Ad-based companies may be overstepping their bounds in how they ask for and use certain personal data. Cook can help consumers by drawing attention to the issue and helping people push back. He may be right that the model of trading "free" services for personal information may be inherently wrong, but where he is definitely right is that consumers need to be more thoughtful about what data they share.
While Apple's CEO was restrained and avoided directly calling out his sometimes rivals, sometimes allies, his message was clear and it's a message that's worth hearing.