Teargas in the walled garden: iOS is a threat to democracy

Photo: Isaac Yeung / Shutterstock.com, Hong Kong - October 1, 2019

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
can run.

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."

 

 

Comments

Hi Tom,

Firstly, I appreciate your commentary piece.  I agree with the idea that freedom of expression, including in the realm of utility gained from controlling the direction of programming of one's devices is generally desireable (of course there are exceptions).

You make a couple of errors and inferences that are also not accurate, but the major fallacy is the inference that Apple is responsible for anybody's freedom.  The consumer's freedom (and Apple is a maker/vendor of consumer goods) is the ability to choose to buy or not buy a product.  Your freedom as a consumer (of a non-custom-made-good) does not include the ability to dictate the parameters of that product to the vendor.  The inference that Apple is comparable to a government and is somehow culpable for the freedoms of their customers is a fallacy.

Now to "face."  The commercial from the launch of the Macintosh during a commercial break for the Superbowl in 1984 using the narrative of Big Brother was just that, a narrative.  It was not reality.  If you think that Apple was ever anything like a democracy under Steve Jobs then you don't know about the history of Apple, and I know better than that. Yet this narrative, that Apple somehow enabled greater freedom through it's products was the presented "face."  When harsh realities are revealed one of those included in the bunch is that "face" is an illusion.  Here's the reality:Apple gains great economic benefit from manufacturing and selling in the PRC.  Do they make more money in the PRC than in Taiwan?  Probably.  They will seek profitability.

Is what they are doing creating a net negative result?  I'm not sure.  Is it tantamount to IBM supplying tabulating machines to the Nazi's for their "labor camps" (i.e. death camps)?  No.  (BTW for this example and other similar ones, I urge people to see the film or read the documentary book "The Corporation.")

 

We can use consumer power to indicate our dislike for a companies actions, and it has been done so to good effect when there is unity.  But if you choose to do so, you need to line up several things in order to get the necessary support.  You need to be completely accurate in your statements.  You need to distill your message for simplicity and clarity.  And you need to demonstrate to potential movement joiners the idea that "If it can happen to them over there, it can happen to you here."

Good luck.

Tom Owad's picture

Thanks for your reply, mutant_pie.

 

You make a couple of errors and inferences that are also not accurate, but the major fallacy is the inference that Apple is responsible for anybody's freedom.  The consumer's freedom (and Apple is a maker/vendor of consumer goods) is the ability to choose to buy or not buy a product.  Your freedom as a consumer (of a non-custom-made-good) does not include the ability to dictate the parameters of that product to the vendor.  The inference that Apple is comparable to a government and is somehow culpable for the freedoms of their customers is a fallacy.

 

I agree that "the ability to choose to buy or not buy" is the crux of the matter. Most internet use is now from a mobile device, where the only prevalent choices are iOS and Android. Apple's position in the market, coupled with its control over the app store, borders on a monopoly. And in fact, Apple is currently facing a monopoly lawsuit over this. Tim Cook argued a few weeks ago that "A monopoly by itself isn't bad if it's not abused". With the censorship of HKmap.live and others, I believe this one's been abused.

 

Now to "face."  The commercial from the launch of the Macintosh during a commercial break for the Superbowl in 1984 using the narrative of Big Brother was just that, a narrative.  It was not reality.  If you think that Apple was ever anything like a democracy under Steve Jobs then you don't know about the history of Apple, and I know better than that. Yet this narrative, that Apple somehow enabled greater freedom through it's products was the presented "face."  When harsh realities are revealed one of those included in the bunch is that "face" is an illusion.  Here's the reality:Apple gains great economic benefit from manufacturing and selling in the PRC.  Do they make more money in the PRC than in Taiwan?  Probably.  They will seek profitability.

 

I don't see a problem with holding a company up to the standards they set with their 'face'.

 

Apple has been on a steady path away from openness, from the Apple 1 that was practically open source, to the Apple II, to the "appliance" Mac, to the walled garden of iOS.

 

Thanks for this article, Tom. I've felt the same way about the walled garden for a long time, and while I use iOS devices, I strongly feel Apple needs to open up the iOS platform for sideloading. 

 

While Mutant's points have some merit, his argument comes down to "If you don't like it, don't buy it." This is never a valid response, and is a form of logical fallacy. One can basically dismiss any shortcoming in a product with the response, "If you don't like it..." 

 

"Don't buy it" does not fix the shortcomings of the product. "Don't buy it" does not free people up from their installment contracts, nor does it magically fix the huge problems with the competition. "Don't buy it" does not fix the mindset of a company that refuses to listen to its customers and makes choices that alienate portions of their customer base, to justify questionable design choices. 

 

Apple has given good reasons for locking down the app store, such as  reducing malware and software piracy. These reasons hold up for the average person, who still hasn't figured out that those numbers on their app icsons mean they have messages waiting.  But not all of us are that guy... many of us know how to avoid malware, and we need capabilities banned by the app store.

 

For example, I need a device that can get raw WiFi data, so I can test my WiFi installation in a new building. So I bought an Android phone just to run a WiFi scanner app. 

 

Apple does have a form of unofficial sideloading, in the form of the developer tools. If one owns a Mac, they can install self-written apps on their devices. The only problem with this approach is that it requires a Mac computer (not a Windows PC), and it basically open-sources any software installed via this method.  I'd actually be fine with that, if PC users were allowed to compile and test software on their iPhone and iPad. But even here, Apple refuses to budge, and will not release a version of their developer tools for PC.

And since I don't like Mac computers, I don't buy them. 

 

I enjoyed this article, and I will use your points when discussing this with other people in the future. 

Live Long and Prosper

-TomXP411 (yes, there are a lot of Toms out there. We are legion.)