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Joel Falconer

We Are Committed to Moderate Amounts of Free Expression

User Rights, Newsletter Editorials3 min read

This editorial has been reposted from the 10 September 2020 issue of SitePoint Weekly.

Meltdown

Read Apple’s commitment to freedom of expression... that doesn’t mention China

In Apple's walled garden, we're trained to be grateful that our device manufacturer doesn't mercilessly surveil us. Of course, this should be a default expectation across the board, as should a baseline degree of platform openness. Apple has done well at making these breadcrumbs seem messianic — probably its greatest act of marketing in the post-Jobs era. Of course the ecosystem is more closed than a 90s all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut! It needs to close all your data in!

These breadcrumbs have justified the App Store's extremist closed system ideology and growing hunger for developer revenue for years. But Apple is only just now getting around to disincentivizing the rampant surveillance that goes on via its App Store. It has also delayed any meaningful use of that roadblock for months to give your Peeping Toms a chance to engage in one last voyeuristic rampage.

Find a regular iPhone user from outside of our bubble who says they bought an iPhone for the privacy protections and the peace of mind offered by the closed App Store. There are plenty of them. Maybe they really bought it for the short burst of status and respite from the hedonic treadmill, but since we're not psychoanalysts, we'll take it at face value. Now ask them whether they know that Facebook and Google are still sucking up their data through countless App Store-endorsed proxies. They don't.

The reality is that platform choice, particularly in the mobile arena, has become a binary choice between two equivalently compromised situations: your privacy or your freedom. Choose a little bit of one. Give up the other.

Every time you give thanks to Tim Cook for not spying on you (weird thing to do, btw), remember how enthusiastically and persistently he is trying to destroy the independent repair shops and overturn court rulings about the right to repair. These are the same small-time repairers you task with fixing your shattered screens because they don't gouge you in the process.

(Yes, not you, you bought AppleCare. I get it.)

Right now, we're fixated on digital surveillance. It's terrifying and inescapable, so of course we are. But we'll soon realize that software freedom and device control are as important as privacy. We may even collectively make the obvious realization that privacy rights fall under that same umbrella. This is true for almost every major debate about technology underway: we need more control, not less.

Apple's greatest defense against governments on privacy has been encryption. If it can't aid and abet the government, it doesn't have to worry about it, and therefore neither do you. Apple's track record in China shows that failing any such option it will do trade and make decisions as necessary to fulfill its ultimate responsibility to shareholders.

It doesn't matter what it says about principles and commitments in flowery statements. It's not a B Corp. A public company has one true commitment, which is to make the green line go up.

It's nice that we benefit from a somewhat more benevolent application of closed model power. That's not the reality for Apple's largest market, and why would we expect otherwise? That's the price of admission in China.

But this begs the question: can a company claim to be committed to a principle if it cannot deliver on that commitment to its largest userbase?

We've had the answers to ensuring digital freedom of expression and information for decades. They include openness, user freedom, and the democratization of strong encryption. Heck, they built the software underlying macOS and iOS — though you don't see the developers who created the Mach kernel, BSD, or the 200+ open source packages that ship with macOS blackmailing Apple for 30% of its revenue.

Apple can take a lesson from its own practices in privacy. The best way to ensure it can't be used as an agent of censorship is to remove itself from the equation. That means opening the platform, even if it's an opt-in situation for those who know — or think they know — what they are doing.

The web is still open, with some vulnerabilities. Thanks to its openness, there are plenty of creative ways to grab a copy of Tor should you become subject to those vulnerabilities — even if Tor's clear web site is blocked.

As we all know (and have discussed here previously), the worst of the Apple submissives are virulently defending the monopsonist's right to gouge. This is bizarre, but what they really suffer from is a failure of imagination.

They can't imagine a world in which users demand basic rights — like privacy, interoperability, open access, and the right to repair, to name just a few — and actually get them. It's absurd to them that we could force trillion dollar companies to respect these rights as the baseline, rather than let them pick those most convenient to be used as marketing battlelines.

The first thing we need to do is reintroduce competitive dynamism into the technology market. The next thing we need to do is revisit those ideas about user rights and software freedom that we laughed off long ago in pursuit of steeper, greener lines, and decide which ones we'll draw a line in the sand for.

© 2020 by Joel Falconer. All rights reserved. Connect: Mastodon, Twitter.
Joel Falconer