Facebook is in crisis.
Stop us if you’ve heard that one before. That’s been the general state of the company for almost two years now, ever since it became clear that so-called fake news and Russian election meddling on the social network may have influenced the result of the 2016 presidential election.
This week was no different, but it also brought on a new enemy: Apple. And Apple, it turns out, may be as dangerous as anything else Facebook is up against right now.
The quick backstory: Facebook is part of one of Apple’s special enterprise developer programs that allows companies to publish apps specifically for their own employees; these apps don’t go through the public App Store. Facebook uses that program to share beta versions of its own apps with employees so it can test new features or new code. It also uses the program to create apps for in-house purposes, like Facebook’s shuttle bus schedules or lunch menus.
On Tuesday, TechCrunch reported that Facebook has been abusing its role in Apple’s enterprise program by using it to distribute an app to non-employees. The app, which Facebook says was for “market research,” was used to gather personal data about the phone habits of the users who downloaded it. (Facebook paid these people to download the app, TechCrunch says.)
An app like that would have violated Apple’s App Store guidelines, but Apple doesn’t review apps that are part of the developer program. It looks as though Facebook took advantage of the program to distribute the app without Apple’s knowledge.
Apple was upset. On Wednesday, the company announced that it was forcing Facebook to stop distributing the research app, calling it a “clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”
But that wasn’t all: Apple also appears to have stopped Facebook from distributing all apps associated with its enterprise developer program, according to a source. This means the special versions of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp that Facebook employees use aren’t working on iPhones. It also means that other internal Facebook apps aren’t working in iOS, including Facebook’s Slack competitor, Workplace.
Essentially, Apple forced Facebook employees to download the public version of all of these apps, given that most of the company’s employees use iPhones.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that its internal apps have been impacted by Apple’s decision to revoke its publishing abilities and that it is working with Apple to resolve the issue.
It’s hard to overstate how big an issue this could be for Facebook. Not only does it completely disrupt all kinds of productivity, but if Facebook’s product teams can’t ship internal beta versions of its apps, it could seriously hinder Facebook’s product development. Don’t forget: This is a company that spent its first decade preaching the mantra, “Move fast, break things.”
Apple has shown that it isn’t just capable of stopping Facebook from moving fast — it might be capable of stopping Facebook altogether, at least temporarily. It’s unclear how long Apple will restrict Facebook from pushing updates, but it’s not the kind of enemy Facebook needs right now.
The two companies have developed a bit of a rivalry. Apple CEO Tim Cook said last year that Facebook’s privacy issues could have been solved with “self-regulation,” but Facebook missed its chance. When asked what he would do in Facebook’s shoes, Cook replied pointedly, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg later called the criticism “extremely glib.”
Facebook seems to have picked up in 2019 right where it left off in 2018. This Apple drama comes less than two weeks after a report in the Washington Post said that the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating Facebook, is considering slapping Facebook with a “record-setting” fine for privacy violations.