The EFF’s Oddly Informed War Apple’s iPhone Apps
June 3rd, 2009
Daniel Eran Dilger
An Electronic Frontier Foundation blogger has once again managed to malign the EFF’s own laudable mission as an organization in order to deliver an over the top, incendiary screed about Apple and the iPhone app review process. This time it’s personal, due to an EFF-related iPhone app rejection, but they’re wrong, here’s why.
The Teapot Tsunami.
At the core of the dramatically hysterical (and I don’t mean funny) rant is the idea that Apple is oppressing parody content because it wants to censor the mobile software users can install on the iPhone. But that isn’t even remotely true, as I’ll get to in a moment.
In particular, the event that triggered the EFF’s umbrage was the rejection of an iPhone app that merely played content from the EFF website, including a parody video that portrayed a scene of Hitler losing it in Downfall, but with added subtitles that portrayed the scene as movie executives upset about YouTube parodies rather than a frustrated Nazi upset about losing World War II.
The clip was intended to be an example of fair use of a copyright work, using a parody to make a parody of objections… to parody as fair use. It also sought to bring attention to the DMCA as an impediment to fair use, as the guy who threw subtitles on the clip was afraid he couldn’t simply rip the movie from the DVD, because that would break the rules on circumventing encryption, something that is illegal on top of any copyright infringement issues, unless a specific exemption is granted to allow the activity.
However, the EFF-badged iPhone app (which was not developed by or endorsed by the EFF) was rejected by Apple for presenting “objectionable content,” which the EFF blogger assumed to be this Downfall clip, because the video “includes the fleeting appearance of the f-bomb in a subtitle.”
Fleeing Frying-pan For Fire
Based on this assumption, the EFF’s blogger insists that “Apple playing the role of language police for [users’] software” is a primary reason why the DMCA should provide an exemption to allow unfettered iPhone app piracy, so that people can freely bypass Apple’s entire security system (which is protected by the DMCA) to install cracked apps that provide access to this kind of “objectionable content” rather than just watching this video on YouTube, apparently.
In other words, because there is no alternative to Apple’s iTunes App Store, the EFF is proposing a solution to Apple’s “invasive censorship” of the software it chooses to sell in the iPhone Apps Store by demanding an exemption to the DMCA. That exemption would also eliminate Apple’s legal rights to stop anyone from breaking the iPhone’s security, opening up the iPhone to the same kind of adware, malware, and widespread software piracy as is found on the Windows desktop.
Unlike Microsoft on the PC desktop however, Apple doesn’t have a competition-free monopoly platform in the smartphone arena. By being stripped of control over its own minority platform, Apple would be pushed out of business by competitors who can match most of what Apple offers apart from the consistent integration savvy that the EFF is trying to eliminate.
Apple and EFF argue over iPhone jailbreaking
Prophylactic Platform Protection
The EFF only cites ideological optimism that destroying Apple’s managed platform would result in a utopian market where innovation would flourish because Apple wouldn’t be there to stop anything. The problem is that Apple wouldn’t be there to cultivate this happy garden commune either.
Instead, the iPhone platform would be taken over by third parties seeking to make money without regard for the longevity of Apple’s platform, the very thing that destroyed the Macintosh: Microsoft cloned Apple’s platform based on its intimate knowledge of it as an early developer, then abandoned Apple, and encouraged Adobe and everyone else to follow it instead. Because Apple had essentially given third parties full control of the Mac platform, they could ride it hard and put it away wet, which eventually left Apple with little more than the raw materials for glue.
Nowadays, Apple is working to keep the value of its development work attached to its platform, to maintain strong control over its end of the iPhone business, and to differentiate its mobile platform from those that offer either little in the way of development ease (Symbian), little in terms of usable desirability (Windows Mobile), little in terms of platform security (Android), little in terms of consumer software (BlackBerry), or little in terms of sustainability (WebOS).
The EFF’s mission to destroy DMCA protection of Apple’s mobile platform business model would simply open the iPhone up to third parties that wished to steal its software, mod away its strictly enforced interface usability and dismantle its security system. The result would be that Apple would find itself back in the late 80s, where the only defense it had to stop the outright theft of its software was the ineffectual and glacial court system and a difficult to make case involving copyright infringement.
While the DMCA has its flaws, it is successfully blocking unbridled commercial-backed piracy, forcing anyone who wants to use copyright material to obtain clandestine tools from the grey market, and to act on a small scale about it. Which of course is the whole point of the DMCA: to stop other legitimate companies from profiting from the wholesale theft of other’s content in the way Microsoft repeatedly did to Apple and other companies it stole from.
While the idea of giving individuals carte blanche to use content as they desire with no legal encumbrance is a nice idea ideologically, the reality is that corporations have the same rights as individuals, so relaxing the rule of law “binding” individuals results in scant legal protection for both smaller companies trying to compete against established ones, and legitimate companies under siege by an plague of fly-by-night parasites. It just so happens that Apple fits both profiles at risk from the relaxing of copyright law.
Meanwhile, there is no action being taken to stop individuals who crack their iPhones for personal use, making the EFF’s case a dangerously high voltage taser being heavy handedly pointed towards the perpetrator of a victimless “crime” that is not even illegal.
Why iPhone Apps Can’t Give an F-Bomb.
If the EFF’s blogger had ever listened to Steve Jobs talk for more than a few minutes, it would be clear that Mr. F-Bomb Dropper himself is not in business to prevent people from being exposed to profanity. But Apple is in business, and the company is a veritable flame for the moths of nuisance lawsuits and political protestations.
Apple’s also targeting iPhone and iPod touch devices to kids. The company has built parental controls into iTunes and the iPod to enable adults to listen to any music they want while still blocking their children’s ability to purchase or play music containing explicit lyrics.
It does not, however, have a parental controls system in place for iPhone app content. There are rating guidelines, but no administrative system for blocking the purchase or use of apps based on their rating. However, the new iPhone 3.0 software will include “parental controls for TV shows, movies and apps from the App Store.”
Guess how that will affect Apple’s threshold for allowing content that some might find objectionable for their kids? Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the company will dive into distributing porn, but it will clearly raise the ceiling for what might be considered too objectionable to sell in iTunes.
It Isn’t Apple That’s Objecting.
This spring, at Apple’s shareholder meeting, a conservative think tank sent a drone to grill Apple’s executives with a prepared speech about some TV show it found objectionable (Two and a Half Men on CBS) and which Apple sells in the iTunes Store.
Apple’s executives didn’t cower to explain how they were going to take immediate steps to block the TV show on the company’s iPods to safeguard America’s children from mobile access to something they’d otherwise see on terrestrial TV, for free. Instead, the complaint was dismissed by pointing out that Apple has built parental controls into iTunes and the iPod to empower families to make their own decisions.
So is Apple suddenly putting on a prude hat to censor mobile software content the company personally finds “objectionable,” or is it simply acting to prevent lawsuits, complaints and demonstrations against its iPhone apps platform until it has a suitable answer to the question of how to balance freedom of choice in content for adults with freedom from objectionable content to the families it is selling its products to?
Consider the source.
The EFF blogger complained that the video Apple “apparently” judged as objectionable was also available uncensored on YouTube, which would make it available on the iPhone as well, suggesting that this was both hypocritical and an example of arbitrary censorship done in retaliation to the EFF’s efforts to destroy Apple’s business model with a DMCA exemption.
The difference is that Apple owns the iTunes Store and bears culpability for what it sells there; the store came under intense fire for allowing a “game” that involved shaking a baby to death, for example. Many of the same people complaining that Apple shouldn’t impose restrictions on developers turned right around to complain about how inappropriate it was for Apple to offer such offensive content.
However, Apple doesn’t own the YouTube service, even though it makes it available through its YouTube player. Nobody could be taken seriously for complaining that offensive content appearing on YouTube is Apple’s fault; that business would have to be taken to Google. However, if Apple released or allowed an “X-Tube” client for the iPhone and distributed it on the phone or from iTunes, that would clearly come under attack for delivering objectionable content to minors, because there is nothing else that service delivers and no current mechanism for parents to block access to it.
At the same time, Apple also ships a web browser on the iPhone that enables anyone to find anything. Again, the nature of the Internet is well known, and nobody could be taken seriously for attacking a company’s browser for displaying objectionable content they dug up on the web. Additionally, Apple enables parents to block access to Safari if they don’t want their children to browse the web without some supervision.
Let the Market Decide.
Because Apple has created the iPhone Apps Store as a business it manages under the Apple brand in iTunes, it has to exercise control over the products it sells there. Until it ships iPhone 3.0 with the new parental controls on apps, it is pretty much compelled to keep everything it offers inoffensively tame.
Attempting to portray this reality as the basis for demanding that Apple be divested of control over the business it built, and that this market be handed to the third parties that benefit from it rather than Apple, is no longer an argument for competitive access to the platform and instead simply an effort by the EFF to demand communal ownership of something that was never public to begin with.
The only thing that could legitimately force Apple to rethink its strategy of operating the App Store as store and not as a communal library of apps with no centralized security for users or the platform, is if Google’s efforts to push Android as that very alternative thing begin to encroach on and eclipse Apple’s success. So far, that hasn’t happened
The EFF shouldn’t attempt to impose centralized market planning controls that force the Google business model (which I believe to be flawed) upon Apple. That won’t be necessary until the iPhone becomes the only phone available on the market and no significant competitive pressures are left to deliver alternative options. Until then, there are plenty of real issues for the EFF to worry about.