You may think you own the device you bought last week from a retailer. But it is increasingly the case that what you own is only the hardware; you don’t own the right to use it the way you want to use it, even for entirely legal purposes.
The consequences of this reality have been researched deeply by Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor, friend and colleague from when I was a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He is also the author of The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It. Zittrain describes a potential future in which the very qualities that have made the Internet so valuable—notably, its openness to innovation by everybody—are in danger. Whereas the personal computer and the early Internet were a wide-open collection of technologies on which anyone could build software and services, now governments and the technology and media industries increasingly want to clamp down on your freedoms. Zittrain writes:
A lockdown on PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances [like the iPhone] will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field. Stopping this future depends on some wisely developed and implemented locks, along with new technologies and a community ethos that secures the keys to those locks among groups with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, rather than in the hands of a single gatekeeping entity, whether public or private.
The iPhone and iPad are the best examples yet of a controlled ecosystem, and not just because you have to tether them to a PC or Mac in order to fully manage the music, songs, apps and other files on these (admittedly lovely) devices. With the Macintosh computer, Apple built an essentially open ecosystem for software developers. Anyone could write and sell (or give away) software for the Mac, and still can, just as they can for Windows and Linux and other computer operating systems. But with the iPhone and the iPad, Apple expanded on its experience with the iTunes Music Store, creating a system for retailing applications designed for these devices—but only if Apple has approved them. The number of applications available is said to exceed 300,000, but there are well-documented horror stories featuring Apple’s refusal, often on mysterious grounds, to allow specific applications to be sold or even given away to iPhone/iPad users.
You can still create what you want on the Web, and iPhone users can still find it via the device’s Safari browser—but sorry, no videos using Adobe’s Flash player that runs most videos on desktop and laptop computers. Meanwhile, if you want your audience to experience your work in any way that uses the iPhone or iPad hardware to its fullest capabilities, you need Apple’s permission to distribute the app that does this. And, then, if you get permission and charge for your application, or for any services you provide via your application, Apple insists on taking a cut of the money.
Google’s Android mobile operating system is more open, but the company’s real customers for it are the mobile carriers—AT&T, Verizon, etc.—that are busy locking down what their customers can do with their devices. Control-freakery is endemic, and dangerous.
Amazon, a company in which I own some stock, has locked down its Kindle platform, too. The Kindle is the most popular e-reader by far, and while I own one I’m extremely unhappy about Amazon’s hard-nosed insistence that it can control your Kindle. The company was appropriately embarrassed (and had to pay out a court settlement) for remotely deleting several books by George Orwell, including 1984—oh, the irony—from the Kindles of people who’d bought the editions from what turned out to be a publisher that was unauthorized to sell them. While Amazon apologized for its actions, it didn’t say what would happen if some judge or government agency ordered it to remove books or other content from the devices in the future.
This is not just about your right to read and use media as you wish. It is also about the way you will be able to make available what you create in the future. If you believe in freedom of speech, and see mediactivity’s value to our lives, our culture and our democracy, you should be deeply alarmed by the trends we’re seeing.