Apple, Give Us a "Freedom of Choice" Button
With the new iPhone 4 hitting stores this week, it seems like a good time to take a look at the impact Apple's business model has had on the stuff EFF cares about most – innovation and your digital rights and expectations.
But first, a little historical perspective. From our earliest days, EFF has been concerned about the ecosystem that exists around communications technologies. We used to refer to this work as our Open Platform Proposal, and we've spent the last 20 years fighting initiatives by governments and private companies that would have damaged the end-to-end interoperability of the Internet and interfered with innovation, free expression and the fundamental freedom to tinker.
The principle is simple: just as you get to choose whatever after-market modification you want to make to your car, whatever disk drive you want to add to your mainframe, and whatever third party add-on you want for your software, you should be able to choose the apps and hardware you want for your iPhone. You should be able to choose your network provider. And you should be able to leave the walled garden and continue to use your device after you've moved on.
This is about end-user choice, and Apple doesn't seem to believe you deserve any. Through its control over the iPhone's software and its mandatory approval process, Apple is pushing the idea that a manufacturer should be able to dictate how things can interoperate with a product at every layer – from the software, applications, and services that can be developed and sold, to the consumer's use of the device, to the other devices that can physically plug into it.
The consequences of this approach are all too clear. Consider these examples:
- Apple banned editorial cartoons that "ridiculed public figures" from its App Store, including an application created by political satirist Mark Fiore. Only after receiving bad publicity when Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize did Apple have a change of heart and accept some of the (wickedly funny) apps.
- Apple censored two graphic novels, one based on Ulysses and the other on The Importance of Being Earnest, by blacking out portions of the art panels. The panels showed nudity (Ulysses) and men kissing (Earnest). Again, Apple asked the apps' developers to resubmit after Apple received bad publicity for the censorship.
- Apple rejected multiple apps that accessed international newspapers and books, because some of the content that could be accessed contained sexually explicit material and/or nudity. Apple later accepted some of the apps after the developers eliminated access to the objectionable materials, causing editors at British fashion magazine Dazed and Confused to nickname their iPad edition the "Iran" edition.
- Apple rejected several applications that competed with Apple's own offerings, including apps that allow users to synch their iPads with iTunes and to check multiple Gmail accounts at once. The FCC is investigating whether Apple engaged in anti-competitive behavior by removing all Google Voice-compatible applications from the App Store.
- Apple has been aggressively asserting the right to license accessories, like speakers and headphones, that work with its products.
These are exactly the kinds of moves that we generally trust customer choice to solve – if you could get your apps from other stores, then Apple's censorship and anti-competitive moves would be much less problematic. Apple claims it needs to build a walled garden to protect users. From where we’re sitting, however, the walled garden looks very much like an effort to control the user and re-set traditional expectations about what you can do with the products you buy.
As Jason Snell put it over at MacWorld, Apple should offer iPad and iPhone owners "an option that lets you install Apps from 'unknown sources.'” Think of it as a "freedom of choice" button, for those who elect to leave the "safety" of Apple's walled garden of pre-approved apps.
Apple's certainly not the only company trying to control your user experience. We're involved in a lawsuit right now where Facebook has sued a company for creating an app that enables end-users to log into their multiple social networking accounts and aggregate messages, friend lists, and other data. Microsoft's expulsion of users from Xbox Live for altering their consoles is another example. There is a troubling trend of companies cutting off their customers when they learn that the customers have tried to control, without company permission, some aspect of the hardware or software they purchased.
To quote our dear friend Cory Doctorow, "If someone takes something that belongs to you and puts a lock on it that you don't have a key for, that lock isn't in your best interests." It’s abundantly clear that Apple is no exception to this rule. If Apple and its fellow travelers truly care about protecting the user experience – in the long term as well as the short term – they should abandon the lock-down mentality and support your right to control your own devices. They should support the interoperability that has fostered consumer choice and the rapid growth of new technologies. They should give up the keys to the garden.