Teargas in the walled garden: iOS is a threat to democracy
Apple's iOS App Store has been a tremendous success, generating over $100 billion in revenue since its inception. This is thanks in part to Apple's walled garden approach, which requires that all iOS software must be purchased through Apple's App Store. This approach has kept iOS relatively free of the malware that has plagued Android phones. Apple's screening of apps has resulted in a higher quality collection of software. It's a beautiful walled garden, in exchange for which, we give up control over what software we
The consequences of giving up this control have been particularly grave in China, where Apple has cooperated with the Chinese government to censor apps. Apple's defenders claim that Apple has no choice but to "obey the law" in China and block apps at the request of the Chinese government. This is not exactly true. Unlike macOS, Windows, and nearly every other platform that came before iOS, Apple deliberately chose to create a locked down platform where blocking apps is possible. When Apple released the iPhone in China, they had the option to open up the App Store, so that Chinese users had the freedom of installing any software they chose. Instead, Apple decided to collaborate with China to control Chinese users, for the mutual benefit of Apple and the Chinese government. Where is the courage we saw when Apple removed the iPhone's audio jack?
Apple has a long history of subservience to China within its borders, but it has now extended that behavior to Hong Kong. MKmap.live is a mapping service that shows the locations of protesters and police in Hong Kong. Its app was initially rejected by the app store because it "facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal… Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement." Mapping police locations is not illegal under Hong Kong law and Apple allows other apps such as Waze to offer this functionality. In response to outcry, Apple reversed their decision two days later and allowed HKmap.live into the app store.
Four days after that, People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, ran an article condemning Apple for allowing the app. The next day, Apple removed HKmap.live from the App Store. In an internal memo, Apple claimed that "the app was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present." This is a strange claim for an app that shows concentrations of police, not their absence, and does not identify the location of any specific officer. Apple has offered no evidence to support their claims. The app, which is legal, remains available on Google Play.
Apple is not a neutral party in the Hong Kong conflict. Its actions support the interests of the Chinese government. A month earlier, Apple also removed the Taiwanese flag from the emoji keyboard of iPhones in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese flag is not illegal in Hong Kong and Apple has not attempted to justify this act of censorship. Is there an internal memo explaining how the flag emoji was being used maliciously to target individual officers?
The purpose of the HKmap.live app is to help protesters avoid being teargassed by the police. When Apple bans that app, it is endangering the lives of protesters and making it more difficult for them to achieve their political goals. Apple is taking an active role in forming Hong Kong's future.
Apple has made curious choices in blocking apps globally, as well. Apps that let you buy clothing made in sweatshops are allowed. Apps that educate you about sweatshops are not. You can play games where you kill people with drone strikes. Apps that document and map real drone strikes are banned. And you most certainly can't play a game about the environmental and human costs of smartphone manufacturing.
Using data gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Drones+ mapped drone attacks by the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. They confirmed 6,786 strikes, killing over 8,000 people, including over 250 children. Whose interests are served when an app documenting these strikes is blocked? Apple banned the app for being "objectionable and crude". If anything about drone strikes is objectionable and crude, awareness that they're occurring is surely not it.
Increasingly, iOS has become the primary platform by which many people access the internet. According to Pew Research, one in five American adults use a smartphone as their only means of connecting to the internet. WARC estimates that almost three quarters of internet users will be mobile-only by 2025. In China, 98% of internet users connect from a mobile device.
When an iPhone is your only computer, Apple's censorship of the App Store is dangerous. In Hong Kong, Apple has used this power to stifle democratic protests. In the United States, Apple has used it to censor news about war. Apple is using its walled garden to regulate and influence political expression. This level of control over political expression, by a corporation, is a threat to our freedom of speech and to our democracy.
The walled garden is the antithesis of what Apple once stood for. In Apple's 1984 commercial, as the heroine throws her sledgehammer at the screen, Big Brother intones, "We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thoughts."