Choke points leave us vulnerable

This article was originally published on Salon on July 6, 2010.

Technology’s points of failure — and control — remain a constant worry even in the Internet Age

The SEACOM fiber-optic cable is one of the major data conduits connecting Africa’s networks to the rest of the world. SEACOM has suffered a serious outage in the past 36 hours or so, and Internet users across a wide area are having problems as a result. Among those affected are the South African universities that use a SEACOM-reliant regional research networking service, TENET, which also means that I and about 800 or so other participants at a pair of international mediaconferences in South Africa are mostly disconnected from email and the other Internet services we normally find essential.

It’s easy to grumble in such situations, and we’re all doing that. And it’s essential that we work on ways to increase network reliability — and reduce our vulnerability to situations where a single point of failure can paralyze vital services.

Even as we realize how far we have to go before we can fully trust that when our online tools will be available when we need them, we need to remember how far we’ve come. A decade ago, on my first trip to Africa, dial-up phone access was the main way I connected to the Internet in my travels — if I could connect at all. And just decade before that, hardly anyone in America, much less Africa, had even heard of the Internet.

The problem we’re experiencing here will pass. Repairs to SEACOM are under way (though conferees may not be back online properly by the time we leave two days from now). And Africa’s telecommunications system, while far behind the rest of the world, is steadily improving in a general sense.

Meanwhile, I’m sending this column via the somewhat iffy WiFi connection at the B&B where we’re staying. The establishment subscribes to an Internet service provider (ISP) that either doesn’t depend, down the pipe, on SEACOM or, unlike the university system, has found a way around the affected cables via other fiber-optic lines.

Yet the outage here reminds us that our interconnected world — and the technology we’ve increasingly come to rely on — remains all too vulnerable to areas of control that amount to outright choke points. Accidents or deliberate actions can achieve the same result: Network services go down or are censored; market-dominating software and Internet companies have critical bugs or use their power to make unilateral decisions.

Sometimes our problems are of our own making. Big Internet customers typically have backup plans for network outages. Home users typically don’t. This is one reason why the epic consolidation of the ISP business in much of the world, including the United States, into duopolies or oligopoly is a dangerous trend. When Comcast or AT&T has a major outage, millions of people are stuck until service is restored. And the internet “backbone” system — the lines that carry the longer-distance traffic — is becoming more and more a fiefdom of a few big players.

Choke points are built into other parts of our culture and economy. We encourage single companies to control access to life-saving drugs. We have an energy ecosystem, especially the electrical grid, that’s scarily vulnerable to disruption. We invite huge financial institutions to make wild bets with other people’s money, grow too big to fail without bringing down the global economy, and then let them steal the rest of us blind when their insane bets go bad. A few thunderstorms in the wrong places create absolute havoc in airline traffic, in part due to an aging and nearly archaic Air Traffic Control system. Even a mild pandemic of a slightly more lethal virus than last year’s H1N1 would overwhelm our already-stretched hospitals. And so on.

The best solutions are redundancy and competition, of course. But there seems little political will to make the kinds of decisions that would encourage more of either. A rare exception was last week’s Obama administration proposal to expand wireless bandwidth; we’ll see if the telecom industry’s lobbyists find a way, as they always try, to scuttle any initiative that expands competition.

There’s not much individuals can do about the mega choke points except tell politicians that they care, and vote. But we have more choices about the control points that affect our daily lives.

This is why you should keep in mind that data you post online — in places like Flickr, YouTube, Google Mail, Yahoo, Facebook and so many others — is much more in their control than yours. Can you get your information out as easily as you put it in? Rarely. And if you’re using a small service that someday goes out of business, you might be entirely out of luck.

That’s also why you should be wary of doing business with companies that sell you gadgets or other technology and then insist that they, not you, have ultimate control over the ways you can use them. Apple is most famous for this kind of control-freakery in its iPhone/iPad ecosystem, but is hardly alone. You may recall that Amazon (a company in which I own a small amount of stock) drew well-deserved fury when, for reasons it considered compelling, it removed books from customers’ Kindles remotely. Apologies don’t suffice; the way to avoid such gaffes is to be open and non-controlling.

And the way for the rest of us to avoid being on the receiving end is to have a Plan B for the essentials. Do you?

Hometown papers’ editorials unpredictable, for once

This article was originally published on Salon on July 1, 2010.

Local dailies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley get counter-intuitive on copyright-vs.-progress story

Just as politicians tend to favor positions taken by the people who pay for their campaigns, local newspapers tend to editorialize in favor of the prevailing economic realities in their regions. That’s why it was surprising in recent days to see how the top daily newspapers in their respective regions of California handled Google’s victory, at least temporarily, over Viacom in a copyright case that’s one battle in the war over who’ll control the Internet.

You’ll recall that a federal judge slapped down Viacom’s claim that Google’s YouTube video service, by allowing its copyrighted videos to be posted on the site, was contributing to copyright infringement. The judge said YouTube was following provisions of the current copyright law that say, among other things, that a site owner is not immediately responsible for what others post there. However, once notified by a copyright holder that it’s hosting infringing work, the site is obliged to take it down.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times, which has often pitched Hollywood’s angle on a variety of issues, published a surprisingly perceptive editorial, very much not taking the film studios’ side. The piece observed that the judge’s ruling was a needed rebuff to yet “another effort to shift copyright holders’ responsibilities onto the middlemen who have opened new distribution pathways online.” It went on:

Those efforts are understandable, given how quickly works can spread around the world, and how many sites can become unauthorized sources. But speedy, low-cost distribution is one of the great advantages of the Internet, not a flaw.

There was more than a little sympathy for the Hollywood dilemma — way more than the Copyright Cartel deserves, in my view — but the Times editorial page showed worthy independence of immensely powerful local interests in its analysis. Two cheers for the Times.

But it’s just one cheer for the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board after reading its day-earlier take on the ruling — and that’s solely because the Chronicle didn’t genuflect to the Bay Area’s dominant local businesses in Silicon Valley’s technology community. They overwhelmingly sided with Google in the matter, for sound reasons that go beyond money. (My view on the case, as posted here last week, is that the ruling meant progress for free speech and collaboration much more than a milestone in a corporate war.)

The Chronicle’s editorial grudgingly accepts that the judge knew what he was talking about regarding the law, but that seems to be the problem. For the editorial writer, this is really about who’s going to control content on the Internet — and for the Chronicle, control appears to be binary:  If the creator of media content can’t have absolute control, he or she will be forced to give it away.

The final line is the tip-off to what’s ultimately on the minds of the editorial board: payment for creating media. Calling for new copyright laws — though what they should contain never makes its way into the piece — the newspaper says, “We can’t expect people to create things for free — unless we believe that the only people in our society who can be creative are those who are already rich.”

Actually, we can expect people to create lots of things for free, even people who aren’t rich. They always have, and always will. And we can expect the creative destruction of technological and economic competition to bring us adapted or new business models that will accept technology’s realities and not try to push the proverbial toothpaste back into the tube.

This Mac devotee is moving to Linux

This article was originally published on Salon on June 20, 2010.

Seeking real freedom of choice in a technology ecosystem where vendors are exerting more and more control

I’m not religious about technology. My strategy is to use what works best, period.

This is why, for more than a decade, I’ve been using a Mac as my primary computer (and had been using Macs for some of my work long before that). Apple’s personal computers continue to be the best combination of hardware and software on the market today.

So why am I about to migrate to Linux (aka GNU/Linux)? Because Apple is pushing me away, and because I value some principles, perhaps almost religiously, that affect other decisions.

Apple is pushing computer users as fast as it can toward a centrally controlled computing ecosystem where it makes all the decisions about what native applications may be used on the devices it sells — and takes a cut of every dollar that is spent inside that ecosystem. This is a direct repudiation of its own history, and more broadly that of the larger personal-computing ecosystem, where no one can stop anyone else from writing and distributing software that other people might want to use.

Steve Jobs says Apple is a curator, nothing more. This grossly understates the control. Jobs says Apple has “made mistakes” in being the police, judge, jury and executioner in its Disney-style world, and is working hard to perfect the system.

But this is a disconnect with reality. Central control, no matter how well-intentioned, is itself the problem, not the solution. The “enlightened dictator” is fiction. And dangerous.

I realize that I won’t persuade the many people who prefer to live in gated communities, believing they can leave any time they wish. But switching costs will only get higher over time for those who choose to live in the Apple ecosystem.

As noted, I’ve been happy in the relatively free Mac world. But given the slowing pace of Mac OS development, there’s reason to believe Apple is mostly milking Mac OS users. Will it phase out serious PC development? Or will it eventually move its command-and-control methods up the value chain to the Mac? Apple says it’s committed to the Mac’s future. I’m not so sure, especially after Jobs, speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference earlier this month, made it clear that he believes the iPhone/iPad ecosystem is the real future of personal computing, with PCs becoming a much smaller player. (I’m a believer in tablets, and am planning to put my money there on the Android OS when tablet manufacturers adopt it in tablet-sized formats.)

So I’m looking for options in the personal-computing part of my life. Windows is one, of course, and Windows 7 is a truly fine piece of work by Microsoft’s recent operating-system standards, leagues better than Vista. But it’s impossible to fully trust Microsoft given its own history, not least its long and ever-deepening alliance with the control freaks of the Copyright Cartel, the commercial music, video, software and publishing industries.

That leaves, for practical purposes, Linux, which is freely available and not controlled by any one company. Volunteers around the world, who value freedom of choice and the ability to modify what they use, have created an ecosystem of their own — software based on the concept that you, not Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer, should have control over what you own.

Linux is anything but a walled garden. It’s almost nothing but choice, with all the good and bad that comes with it. Linux comes in all kinds of flavors. For now, I’ve settled on Ubuntu as the OS most likely to be in my own future. The Ubuntu project, founded by Mark Shuttleworth, appeals to me for many reasons, not least the project team’s devotion to making the software easy to use.

Linux runs on many kinds of PCs. The Mac may be a wonderful combination of hardware and software, but the hardware is definitely lagging these days. I’ve purchased a Lenovo ThinkPad X201, a laptop that strikes me as the ideal balance of portability and power. It’s much lighter than my MacBook Pro, yet has a great set of hardware features that Apple can’t seem to provide in its own laptops despite their high prices. (Example: The ThinkPad has a reader for flash-memory cards.)

Unfortunately, Ubuntu’s latest version, called “Lucid Lynx,” won’t run properly yet on the X201. The machine is just too new, and has some hardware Ubuntu doesn’t yet support. I’m assured this will change in the relatively near future, but Ubuntu’s lack of support for such a popular computer is an example of how much progress the project, for all its immense value, needs to make.

Meanwhile, Lucid Lynx is running nicely in a “virtual machine” on my MacBook Pro. I’ve been testing a variety of applications that could replace the Mac software I’ve come to rely on, though in some cases I can’t easily find adequate replacements (such as the blog-posting software I’m using to create this post).

I’m planning to make this transition slow and systematic. And I’ll be blogging periodically about the process. These postings won’t be aimed at geeky folks, but rather at others like me who believe in true freedom of choice in a world where powerful institutions are trying to lure us — or force us — into their walled gardens.

Steve Jobs defends his PG-rated walled garden

The following article originally appeared on Salon on June 2, 2010.

At the All Things Digital conference, the Apple CEO acts like closed-system critics are cheaters or porn peddlers.

More than a decade ago, when Microsoft reigned supreme in the technology world and Apple seemed to be on its last legs, a fellow technology journalist and I pondered an alternate universe in which Apple and Steve Jobs were in the driver’s seat, not Microsoft and Bill Gates. We agreed: Given Jobs’ personality, the world would not be better off.

A few days ago, when Apple’s market capitalization — the value of all its shares — surpassed Microsoft’s, I thought back to that years-ago conversation with a mix of amazement and angst. While Apple isn’t likely to have the same level of domination that Microsoft achieved, Jobs and company are clearly aiming high. Their strategy for the next generation of personal technology is to control the ecosystem at every level, and to rake off a piece of all the financial transactions taking place there.

And Tuesday night, at the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital conference, Steve Jobs generated his trademark “reality distortion field,”demonstrating again one of the reasons he’s the premier CEO of recent times. More than any other company I can name, Apple reflects its CEO’s values and style — a breathtaking combination of arrogance and genius.

Jobs told the audience of tech, media and financial big shots that his values and goals haven’t changed at all in the past few years. The top of those, he said, was to make great products that people will pay for because they recognize the value. As Doc Searls, currently a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, explained so well back in 1997, not long after Jobs returned to Apple after more than a decade in exile from the company he co-founded, “Steve is an elitist and an innovator, and damn good at both. His greatest achievements are novel works of beauty and style.”

Apple products are among the finest examples of industrial design you’ll find in the technology world. They combine power and ease of use. I’ve been a happy Mac customer for many years.

With the Mac, as with Windows computers (and Linux, etc.), software developers can write programs using a variety of development tools. Then the developers can sell their programs to computer users, who find the software in a variety of marketplaces, increasingly online.

The Mac in Jobs’ regimes was a single-sourced machine; no clones allowed. This turned out to be a wise move, but Apple has taken the control to new heights.

Starting with the iPhone and iPod Touch series of products and continuing with the new iPad, Apple has officially permitted users to install software on the devices they’ve purchased only if they obtain the software through Apple’s online store. Apple requires developers to go through an approval process that is widely considered opaque and capricious — this developer’s blog post on Tuesday, titled “Sentence first — verdict afterwards,” gives you a flavor of what can happen. And Apple takes a cut of the sales price of the applications.

Jobs told the All Things Digital audience a different story. Even as he acknowledged flaws in the marketplace, he suggested that the 5 percent of application developers who don’t get approved in the first week are either cheaters or porn peddlers. What he resolutely didn’t acknowledge was that the closed market might itself be the problem; indeed, he insisted that his “curated” store is the nearest thing to Nirvana that we’ve seen to date in the software world.

The control has gotten sterner. Apple now requires developers to useonly the tools Apple provides to create software; this has the effect of forcing developers to duplicate their time and efforts if they want to write apps for other platforms. Apple refuses to let anyone provide iPhone OS apps that use a variety of forbidden technologies including, most famously, Adobe’s Flash software for viewing animations and videos. When the upcoming in-app advertising system is running, it will likely also impose restrictions on what developers and content owners can do.

Now, Apple’s control hasn’t stopped thousands of developers from creating several hundred thousand apps. Even though many are obvious knockoffs of each other, as is the case in any OS environment, no one can suggest that there’s not a great deal of innovation going on in the iPhone OS world — in part because Apple, better than any other company, gets the foundation combining hardware and software so right.

But Apple’s restrictions have plainly kept some terrific work, or at least apps that are useful but annoy Apple for some reason, from appearing. A “jailbreak” community of people who have hacked their iPhones testifies to this.

The control-freakery extends to the content, as we’ve seen again and again. Apple’s idea of acceptable content is roughly what you’ll find at Disneyland. The company reserves the right to bar or later remove apps that contain information for any reason it chooses. This is how the brilliant Mark Fiore found his iPhone cartoon app disallowed due to its political content — until he won a Pulitzer Prize in April, at which point Apple decided to allow it. (Jobs says the rules changed after Fiore’s original rejection, by which time Apple realized it was making a mistake with political content, but the cartoonist didn’t realize this.)

I’m disappointed beyond words, meanwhile, that journalism organizations are racing to create apps for the iPad, even though they’re putting the final say over whether their journalism is acceptable into Apple’s hands. What does it say about their journalistic principles that they’d do this? Most won’t even respond to the question, and I’ve asked many. National Public Radio’s Kinsey Wilson, who heads up NPR’s online development, is one of the few to admit discomfort with the situation, saying that Apple holds the leverage at this point; he, and other news executives, are basically hoping Apple won’t jerk them around the way it’s done with others.

Steve Jobs’ explanation for all of this is downright Orwellian. Consider his recent late-night e-mail exchange with Gawker’s Ryan Tate. It started this way:

You should realize that Jobs’ view of porn — like his company’s view of forbidden political content (the latter policy has been amended in a more liberal way, Jobs said) — essentially means anything more adult than what in the movie business would get a PG rating. (Unless, of course, the Apple content police decide that, say, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, reportedly as racy as some banned apps, should be allowed, which it is.)

Jobs will provide us a Disney-like, PG-rated walled garden — where he gets a cut of all of the action — ostensibly to protect us from a variety of things that we may or may not want to be protected from, all in the name of freedom. Truly, Orwell could not have said it better. (And Dylan, if he saw how his anthem had been abused this way, must surely have been amazed.)

Of course, as many others have noted, Jobs’ alleged freedom from porn is a joke, given that the iPhone and iPad have Web browsers that can quite easily be used to see plenty of X-rated material. Will Jobs ratchet down the part of his ecosystem he now insists will remain open? If not, why not, given his notion that freedom means someone else making the choices for you.

More telling is Jobs’ view that the p.c. world is “slipping away.” There’s a lot about the p.c. world we’d all like to see disappear, but freedom to make our own choices is not one of them. It’s at the core of the value, not something to dismiss as outmoded.

The competition in the mobile arena, notably Google’s Android operating system, is entirely about being open. It’s one reason I own a Nexus One phone, the Google device that mostly lets me decide what I choose to do with it.

There’s plenty of evidence that lots of people want to live in Steve’s Walled Garden. They want him and his minions to make their choices. They want to save time and trouble.

Which is why Apple and Jobs could resolve this issue in a heartbeat. They could encourage users to use only the Apple-approved apps and see only the Apple-approved content. Many, maybe most, would do that.

But Apple could then create a setting that does what the iPhone jailbreakers do unofficially: open the device for unapproved uses. It could come with a stern message like this: “By clicking here, you will be exposing yourself to risks we can’t control.”

Right. Just like my Mac. Just like real life.

Hacks/Hackers Uniting for iPad Journalism; But What About Apple Control?

I love the Hacks/Hackers Unite idea — getting journalists and programmers and designers together to identify good ideas and hack them together. And I was considering attending this weekend’s event in San Francisco until I saw the agenda:

bringing together journalists and media makers with hackers and designers to build the killer media app for the iPad and other tablet devices. This event will be both a coding development camp and a journalistic boot camp. Teams of hacks (content creators) and hackers (developers and designers) will cooperate to tell develop media applications for the iPad and tablets that help inform, enlighten and tell stories for the public good. You can also build tablet-based tools for journalists.”

I’d have attended except that organizers are ignoring a crucial reality: the violation of journalistic principles inherent in participating in a closed ecosystem that the vendor, not the journalists, will control. Apple, and Apple alone, gets to decide if the journalism apps the hackers create for the iPad — and the journalism they contain — are acceptable. And that’s unacceptable.

Some of the ideas people have posted for the weekend development — and they’re quite creative — must assume Apple’s approval of what they do, a risky assumption given the company’s capricious and opaque rulings about what can be on devices running the iPhone OS. Other ideas, relying on the still-unfinished HTML5, seem not to realize that developers the iPad browser forfeit some of the iPad’s key hardware value, e.g. output from various sensors, because Apple won’t allow browser applications full access to the device’s capabilities.

There’s a sop to “other tablet devices” in the event description. But that’s not very realistic given that Apple forbids development of iPhone OS apps using any tools but the ones it provides — for practical purposes, obliging people developing for the iPad and those other devices to do everything twice, using different tools and even languages. The effect, as Apple intends, is to persuade people to develop mobile apps only for Apple devices.

Here’s where I’m focusing my thinking about tablets and outside-the-box journalistic ideas:

Tomorrow morning I’ll be at the Google I/O conference. Rumors abound that Google may unveil a prototype of an Android tablet. It would be easy enough; essentially, it means putting the Android phone OS on a bigger screen, as Dell is planning to do sometime this year. Android is open-source; Google’s restrictions (or mobile carriers’) have relatively easy workarounds, and the main point is that Google doesn’t decide what apps can use what device features or which apps developers can sell.

I will be working on a tablet-based app or two in the coming months, including something I hope to sell or give away as part of the Mediactive project. But there’s no way I’ll let Apple decide if what I’m doing is allowed. This means I’ll focus my efforts on Android and any other tablet OS that doesn’t force me to ask permission.

On Saturday, I’ll head down to the Maker Faire in San Mateo. What’s that about? From the Maker Faire website FAQ:

Our mission at Maker Media, a division of O’Reilly Media and home to MAKE Magazine, Maker Faire and the host of other inspirational and instructional Maker Media brands, is to unite, inspire, inform, and entertain a growing community of highly imaginative and resourceful people who undertake amazing projects in their backyards, basements, and garages. We call these people “Makers.” 

I wish I could unite the Hacks/Hackers folks with the Maker Faire people. Journalists definitely need to work with programmers. I suspect they need to work even more with the Makers of the world who dream way, way, way outside the boundaries that companies like Apple are creating. Ask permission? These folks laugh at the very notion.

UPDATE: See the comments, where an organizer of the Hacks/Hackers event response.

AskTog Asks the Right Questions re Apple & Content Control

Bruce Tognazzini: Apple & the Dark Cloud of CensorshipIn the grand scheme of things, men like William Randolph Hearst, who had a propensity for involving the United States in the occasional war as long as it would sell newspapers, was far more influential and far more dangerous than Steve Jobs. However, Steve Jobs is not even a journalist. He just makes really, really good paper. What’s going on here is unprecedented.

Apple is displaying the cowardice so in vogue among large corporate entities today, instantly swayed by any pressure group that wants to feign outrage, holding to the most bland, dumbed-down, middle-of-the-road content in order to avoid upsetting anyone about anything. This is the traditional position of, for example, network TV broadcasters, but not Apple, and certainly not Steve Jobs.

I think it’s arrogance, not cowardice. But it’s an outrage either way.


Cartoonists Show More Spine than Editors, Reporters


The New York Times, after noting that Apple reversed its arbitrary banning of an editorial cartoonist’s iPhone app, reports that an association representing cartoonists is lobbying for the company to change its rules for humorous, politically charged apps..

I think we need a cartoon for this. It would show the cartoonists storming the gates at Infinite Loop in Cupertino, with the editors and reporters at their newspapers nowhere in sight as they refuse, almost universally, to address the larger issue of turning over their journalism to a capricious owner of an ecosystem in which they have no control.

Maybe Mark Fiore could create it. He knows the issue intimately.

UPDATE: Or maybe not. As Molly Wood notes, Fiore “resubmitted his app, which is now ‘accepted.’ I wish he’d told Apple to shove off.” Me, too.

Washington Post and NPR: Yes, Apple Can Block Their iPad Journalism


A few days ago, following up on questions I’ve asked a number of other news organizations about their relationships with Apple, the Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro put a query to his bosses — and, unlike me with any traditional news company (including his), got an answer.

Here’s the operative quote from his story today, entitled “App rejected? There’s a rule for that” —

So, can Apple remove news organizations’ apps for their content? Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti wrote that “this is our understanding”; National Public Radio’s Danielle Deabler agreed but said NPR saw no evidence that Apple wanted to do such a thing. Publicists for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and USA Today declined to comment or did not reply to e-mails.

We now have confirmation from two of America’s most respected news organizations — the Post and NPR — that they willingly participate in a distribution/access ecosystem where the company that owns it can remove their journalism from that system for any reason it chooses.

I suspect that the spokeswomen for the Post and NPR have technically violated the terms of their companies’ developers agreements with Apple even by saying that much. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

Anyway, kudos to Pegoraro, who has shown more spine than his colleagues at other news organizations. From all appearances, they’re just hoping this will all go away. It won’t.

UPDATE: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism today in Austin, I asked three panelists — from NPR, the New York Times and the Guardian — about this issue. Only NPR’s Kinsey Wilson responded, and he was more forthright than I’ve heard anyone be from any media company so far.

The situation is “not ideal,” he acknowledged. No news organization, he assumes, has the individual leverage with Apple to insist on contract terms that should be standard for people who believe in their journalism.

NPR, based on Wilson’s other panel comments, is creating what sounds like a multi-platform strategy: creating a back-end system that can feed to any platform. All smart news organizations are trying to move this way.

Fiore’s iPad Rejection Harbinger of Bigger Story


It’s been more than a week since I asked a number of news organizations, chiefly the New York Times, to answer a few questions about their relationships with Apple. Specifically, I asked the Times to discuss what has become at least the appearance of a conflict of interest: Apple’s incessant promotion of the newspaper in pictures of its new iPad and highlighting of the Times’ plans to make the iPad a key platform for the news organization’s journalism, combined with the paper’s relentlessly positive coverage of the device in news columns.

In addition, I asked the Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today — following up on a February posting when I asked why news organizations were running into the arms of a control-freakish company — to respond to a simple question: Can Apple unilaterally disable their iPad apps if Apple decides, for any reason, that it doesn’t like the content they’re distributing? Apple has done this with many other companies’ apps and holds absolute power over what appears and doesn’t appear via its app system.

Who responded? No one. Not even a “No comment.” This is disappointing if (sadly) usurprising, but in light of other news this week it’s downright wrong.

UPDATE: A Times PR person emailed, 11 days after I first contacted the company about this, that the paper is “not going to comment.” Still no word from the others or, more recently, the Washington Post.

Yesterday, Nieman Journalism Lab’s Laura McGann had a story that should give pause even to Apple’s biggest fanboys and girls inside the news industry. In a post entitled “Mark Fiore can win a Pulitzer Prize, but he can’t get his iPhone cartoon app past Apple’s satire police,” she wrote of the newly minted Pulitzer winner in the cartooning category:

In December, Apple rejected his iPhone app, NewsToons, because, as Apple put it, his satire ‘ridicules public figures,’ a violation of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which bars any apps whose content in ‘Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.’

My disdain for Apple’s tactics grows with almost week — and I’ll be saying more about that in a separate posting — but Apple isn’t the issue here. This is about journalism integrity, and the absolute lack of transparency America’s top news organizations are demonstrating by blowing off a totally reasonable question that these news people refuse to raise in their own pages to any serious degree. (The Times’ refusal to discuss its wider relationship with Apple is even more discouraging, and I’m getting close to selling my small stock holding to demonstrate my disgust with an organization I once absolutely revered.)

I was glad to see Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum pursue this yesterday when he wrote, “It’s Time for the Press to Push Back Against Apple.” Will anyone? The early signs aren’t encouraging.

In a Tweet today, Publish2‘s Scott Karp asked, “Do you think news orgs should refuse to create apps for iPad/iPhone?” It’s the right question.

The answer is a qualified no. While I won’t personally want to participate as a journalist in an ecosystem where one company controls content in this way, I can understand why others might — but any self-respecting journalist would want to have absolute, in-writing guarantees that Apple could not in any way interfere with the journalism.

I see no sign of this. And I’m disgusted with journalists who participate in this system or ignore its implications, or both.