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AskTog, May 2010

Apple & the Dark Cloud of Censorship

I received the following letter from Dan Gillmor shortly after publishing my last column, Mac & the iPad, History Repeats Itself. Dan raises an issue that I purposely was avoiding, but one that (sigh) is seemingly impossible to ignore. It has to do with an elephant. And a living room. A really big elephant in a really small living room.

As always, your post on early Mac and iPad was full of insight. But there's a difference that matters more than any of the similarities: The first Mac didn't require software developers to get Apple's permission to write and publish applications. That makes ALL the difference.

               -- Dan Gillmor

Dan Gillmor was the conscience of Silicon Valley during his years as columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. He's now director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

His concern for what amounts to corporate abridgement of freedom of the press is valid and important. The US Constitution protects us from the excesses of government, not the excesses of influential corporate entities. The kinds of censorship that Apple is routinely and unevenly applying is deeply troubling. At this point, tens of millions of people are living under significant press restrictions engineered by Apple and Steven P. Jobs.

Uniquely, Apple, in this case, is not even the press. It is the paper company. If the press wants to print its material on Apple's fine, white vellum, it will do it Apple's way. And the press, as Dan Gillmor has elsewhere pointed out, is stampeding to do just that, handing over traditional freedoms it normally guards so zealously in the process.

In the grand scheme of things, men like William Randolph Hearst, who had a propensity for involving the United States in the occasional war as long as it would sell newspapers, was far more influential and far more dangerous than Steve Jobs. However, Steve Jobs is not even a journalist. He just makes really, really good paper. What's going on here is unprecedented.

Apple is displaying the cowardice so in vogue among large corporate entities today, instantly swayed by any pressure group that wants to feign outrage, holding to the most bland, dumbed-down, middle-of-the-road content in order to avoid upsetting anyone about anything. This is the traditional position of, for example, network TV broadcasters, but not Apple, and certainly not Steve Jobs.

Apple is the company that helped break the back of traditional computing and the large-corporation lock on its power by releasing the first personal computer. Apple is the company that marketed a device called the iPod, specifically engineered for the enjoyment of pirated music. (Come on! Nobody back then had 5,000 songs they had bought, album by album, at Tower Records.) Suddenly, Apple is flipping 180 degrees, setting itself up in the censorship business, making itself "family-friendly" in what is to civil libertarians the most abhorent sense of that word.

Some of Apple's censorship, such as limiting political cartoons, is completely indefensible and needs to be swept away completely. Then, they need to set up strong parental controls on their mobile devices, with the devices shipping in a locked condition. At that point, Apple has no further obligation to censor anything legal. Unfortunately, however, that will not be enough.

Apple has gotten itself trapped in a box, and it's one that will not neatly unlock. Apple is, in my opinion, doing all of us an important service by looking at each and every app to test for conformance to interface and anti-malware standards. The problem is, having pawed through an application, Apple cannot avoid the charge that they have thereby put the official corporate stamp of approval on not only its form and structure, but its content.

The simplest way out of this quandry might be for Apple to expand from having an App Store to having an App Mall, anchored by the App Store and flanked by a small number of independent "boutiques." (No, they wouldn't all be for porn. There could be a liberal boutique, a conservative Christian botique, etc., anything not rigidly corporate-mainstream.)

Apple would require these independents to apply the same stringent interface, safety, and legal standards as Apple, monitoring them from time to time only to the extent that, with parental controls turned on, unsuitable material as defined in their "lease" remains inaccessible. However, the independents, within those few, well-defined constraints, could mount whatever products they so chose. Apple could still, as mall landlord, get a cut of every app sold without getting its hands dirty at the same time.

Mainstream developers would continue to flock to the Apple store, as that's where most users would flock, but users wanting something a bit farther afield or even adventurous could wander next door, parental-controls permitting. (Never fear: The adult shop would simply not exist on a given device unless the device owner/parent proactively turned it on, avoiding the icky problem of the Christian Bookstore having to set up shop near the local porn store.)

As a civil libertarian for most of my life, I shudder at the thought of Apple or any other entity limiting political expression. It is positively un-American. My motivation in suggesting access to adult content, however, is perhaps at least as driven by self-interest, but not in the way you're thinking (and shame on you!): I've been an Apple stockholder since 1979. I've been watching for the last several months as Apple has lost more and more sales to the Droid among 18 to 30 year old males. Yes, Droid's ads are aimed at this exact market, but they are also not blocking the very content that many males of this age group desire. I want those sales back. Selfish of me, but there it is.

Apple and Steve Jobs don't back off positions easily. Many have suggested that market forces will ultimately force Apple to abandon its hyper-control, and that may well happen. While it took Microsoft more than a decade to copy the Mac, it took Google a matter of months to copy the iPhone and begin to eat away at Apple's potential market share. They were successful in fair measure, perhaps large measure, because they promised not to censor.

Google will undoubtably repeat this pattern with a new tablet device as well. HP, with its acquisition of Palm and its WebOS, also has the potential. If these companies exert just enough influence over their developers to create a safe, supportive environment akin to Apple's, while at the same time avoiding outrageous actions like banning political cartoons along with other legal forms of expression, they may force Apple to change or be marginalized, the unfortunate fate of the Mac (though for different reasons). Time will tell.


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A response from Dan Gillmor

Nice column, and many thanks for noting my question in the way you did, and taking on Apple's behavior.

I hope Apple makes some changes. But I don't think your solution is the one we need. A mall they control is still restricted. They should just let users flip a switch to unlock the things, so they can download from any sources they decide are trustworthy. Most users would choose to remain in the walled garden (sadly, IMO), but at least the control-freakery would not be such an issue.

Tog's Response

Dan is absolutely right. However, having know Steve Jobs as well as I have over the last thirty-plus years, both from working for him as well as spending time with him socially, I don't think that's going to happen in his lifetime. He is the ultimate control freak. I've observed that Apple consistently fails to follow my advice either because they don't read this column (Apple has always been hopelessly insular) or because they do read the column, then ensure they take different approach. (See my recommendation for fixing Springboard vs. their actual pinched & clumsy folders solution in IOS4. Why Apple is so terrified of vertical scrolling is a mystery. They may actually not know how to do it without confusing users. If anyone from that giant company ever came to one of my Interaction Design courses, maybe they could learn how to venture into such dangerous territory while never perplexing their users.)

Please read some of Dan's columns on his Mediactive Blog covering this column's topic area. His truly is a voice for freedom:

Why Journalism Organizations Should Reconsider Their Crush on Apple’s iPad

Complicating Relationships in Media: Apple, NY Times Dealings Raise Questions

Fiore’s iPad Rejection Harbinger of Bigger Story

Washington Post and NPR: Yes, Apple Can Block Their iPad Journalism

Better yet, read his blog on a regular basis. His pieces are short, tight, but consistent in their hard-hitting insight.

Have a comment about this article? Please start or join a discussion on your favorite forum. Errors, etc., please contact me.

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