What Do You Own? ‘iSlate’ and Apple’s Direction

You may think you own the device you bought last week from a retailer. What you own, increasingly, is only the hardware; what you don’t own is the right to use it the way you want to use it, even for entirely legal purposes.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and author of The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It, has described a potential future in which the very qualities that have made personal computing and the Internet so valuable — namely their openness to add-on innovation — are in danger. We are on the verge of a major test of his predictions: the upcoming introduction of Apple’s tablet computer.

Where the personal computer and early Internet were a wide-open collection of technologies, on which anyone could build software and services, governments, the technology and media industries have increasingly wanted to clamp down on your freedoms. Apple has been increasingly clear that it intends to be one of the most insistent control freaks, and the “iSlate” or whatever it’s going to be called may well announce the company’s long-term vision — and not in a way we should want it to go.

The iPhone was Apple’s first statement along these lines, and it was a big switch from what had come before. With the Macintosh computer, Apple built an ecosystem for software developers. Anyone could write for the Mac, and still can, just as they can for Windows and Linux and other computer operating systems.

With the iPhone, Apple took its experience with the iTunes Music Store and created an iPhone applications software retailing system. But to reach iPhone users, developers had to get Apple’s permission to be listed in the store. Lots of them have, plainly, as the number of applications is said to be above 100,000; but there are well-documented horror stories featuring Apple’s refusal, on often mysterious or capricious grounds, to allow specific applications to be sold or even given away.

You can still create what you want on the Web, and iPhone users can still find it via the device’s Safari brower — sorry, no other browsers allowed — but if you want them to experience your work in any way that uses the hardware’s capabilities to their fullest, you need Apple’s permission. And if you get it and charge for your application, or for any services you provide via your application, Apple insists on taking a cut of the money.

I have an older iPhone. I used hackers’ software to jailbreak and unlock it, and used it on T-Mobile’s network. But when the “3G” iPhone came out, using AT&T’s network that’s incompatible with T-Mobile’s faster one, I moved to Android. I still prefer the iPhone experience in many ways, but the lack of compatibility and Apple’s constant breaking of the jailbreak software made it crazy to continue.

So here’s the question. I don’t doubt that Apple, an absolute master of user experience, is about to sell a superb multimedia tablet computer that could be as pathbreaking in its genre as the iPhone was in its space.

Many media companies are talking with Apple about selling their content through the Apple tablet. Will they — and software developers — need Apple’s permission to make the best use of the hardware?

In other words, will the Apple tablet software model be the iPhone-style, control-freak system, or will it be the open-to-all Mac platform on a more portable device? Or to put it still another way, is the “you bought it but we control it” mentality moving up into what had been a relatively protected, i.e. open, part of the communications foodchain?

If Apple does the former and gets away with it, you can be sure others in the consumer-electronics arena will move in the same direction. Not all, thank goodness, but some major ones will try to make your decisions for you.

One that already does is Amazon. The Kindle is the most popular e-reader by far. I own one (and I own some Amazon stock), but I am extremely unhappy at 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 — oh, the irony — from the Kindles of people who’s purchased the editions from what turned out to be a publisher that was unauthorized to sell them. While Amazon apologized, 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, you should be deeply alarmed by the trends we’re seeing.

And if media companies think the Apple tablet is their salvation, they should consider what they may be signing up for. Turning their futures over to Apple doesn’t strike me as a solution to anything.

Scrubbing the Past

NY Times: Two German Killers Demanding Anonymity Sue Wikipedia’s Parent. Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber became infamous for killing a German actor in 1990. Now they are suing to force Wikipedia to forget them.

The legal fight pits German privacy law against the American First Amendment. German courts allow the suppression of a criminal’s name in news accounts once he has paid his debt to society, noted Alexander H. Stopp, the lawyer for the two men, who are now out of prison.

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Old laws are inadequate to new eras and technologies, and political boundaries have limited meaning in a networked world.

The German law balanced the rights of those who’d served their time against public knowledge, and came down, by any American First Amendment standard, absurdly far on the wrong side. But it is well-meaning, and was written in a time when it was possible to control what media did within a political jurisdiction, at least for widespread public attention, not in a time when anyone can publish for a global audience.

The networked-world element of the case is a reminder of an ongoing problem in the Digital Age. It’s bad enough that the Germans have such a law, but it’s their country. What’s clearly over the top is trying to pull this information from the English version. The Wikimedia Foundation has rightly refused. (This reminds me to make a donation to the project.)

I worry that the German lawyers — and authorities — will escalate. Even though Wikimedia has no assets in Germany, I’d be unsurprised if the case finds its way into American courts, for no other purpose than forcing the foundation to spend money defending itself. That’s a punishment in its own right.

And suppose the German lawyers persuade courts there to order the arrest of Wikimedia Foundation employees should they visit the country. This isn’t probable, no doubt, but if I were on the board I’d keep a close eye on the risks of stopping in Germany even to change planes.

The broader lessons are part of the changing nature of communications — and of changing norms. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jennifer Grannick addresses the former, in context of this case, in this way:

At stake is the integrity of history itself. If all publications have to abide by the censorship laws of any and every jurisdiction just because they are accessible over the global internet, then we will not be able to believe what we read, whether about Falun Gong (censored by China), the Thai king (censored under lèse majesté) or German murders.

We’ll be fighting these fights for decades to come. People who would control what others can read (listen to, view, etc.) — in order to control what they think and, ultimately, do — will not stop trying to have such powers. (Reminder to self: Send EFF a donation, too.)

But the deeper, harder issue is changing norms, because we have to ask ourselves if we truly want permanent records of everything we’ve ever done — and if there’s no choice in that matter whether we want people only to know us for the worst of our actions, not the sum of ourselves.

The German murders, Werlé and Lauber, don’t get much sympathy in this regard. Nor should they: Murder strikes me as the central act of these men’s lives, though we should also note that they have paid the debt to their society that entitles them to re-enter that society with some respect from others, difficult as that may be. Do they really expect, however, that even a ban on publishing their names will expunge their deeds from people’s knowledge? Yet the motive behind the German law is a sound one: to help those who’ve transgressed restore their membership in society.

As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, job seekers are trying to get minor criminal offenses fully expunged from court records and online databases, especially ones where plea agreements promised such nullifying of the record. We are apparently so unforgiving as a society that even an arrest at some point in your life can be a job disqualification, even if you were totally innocent or if the charge was absurdly petty.

Here’s the problem. Databases will keep this stuff around, and on a Web where duplication is the nature of the system, there will ultimately be no way to fully get rid of anything — or at least we won’t be able to rely on its disappearance, whether through the obscurity of printed records in dusty courthouse basements or actual destruction of records as promised.

Which comes back to changing norms. Until we start weighing old acts against the totality of someone’s experiences and deeds, we’ll hold a sword over each others’ head. Is this really the way we want to live?

Amazon, DRM and Demands

kindle.pngA number of folks whom I admire greatly have signed a petition aimed at Amazon’s control-freakish policies with its Kindle e-book reader. The most notable recent example of what’s wrong with the Kindle is the remote-deleting of books that people had bought (with a refund).

The irony in Amazon’s action, since the deletions included George Orwell’s 1984, contributed to the mini-firestorm that erupted. In any case, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, publicly apologized. That was a smart and welcome move, but his letter to the Amazon community carefully didn’t promise not to do it again. This disappoints me as an author, Kindle owner and owner of a small amount of Amazon stock. (And I’m glad to see that a student is standing up in court against what happened to his own note-taking in the electronic edition.)

The petition to Amazon was organized by the good folks at the Free Software Foundation, an organization I respect immensely. You can read it here.

Although I agree with almost everything the petition says, I declined to sign. My reason was the use of the word “demand” — a word that, as I said to a foundation staff member, feels wrong in every way.

It strikes me as hollow to demand anything. Just as the incessant use of the word “must” in newspapers editorials — as in “President Obama must do this or that” — betrays editorial writers’ fundamental impotence in such matters, demanding that people do this or that seems so unlikely to lead to action that it’s nearly pointless.

I prefer to urge, and try to persuade. So here’s the petition language (which I proposed but which was not adopted) that I’d have gladly signed:

Our way of life based on the free exchange of ideas, in which books have and will continue to hold a central role. Devices like the Kindle are setting the standard for how people interact with books, but the use of software to control, monitor, or eliminate users’ books from afar constitutes a clear threat to the free exchange of ideas.

That is one reason why we — readers, authors, publishers and librarians — strongly urge that Amazon remove from the Kindle device the ability to control or access the books its users have purchased.

Amazon’s assurances that it won’t abuse this power are insufficient. Having this power is the problem. Until the company gives up this capability, the company will be tempted to use it — or may be forced to use it, by narrow private interests or by governments. Whatever Amazon’s motives for maintaining this control may be, they are not nearly as important as the public’s freedom to read books without interference or supervision.

Meanwhile, we are actively seeking alternatives to the Kindle. We will support — with our dollars, and the common sense that when we buy something we should own it — the companies that understand, and provide, true freedom of speech in the marketplace of ideas.

In the end I think Amazon will come around on this, but I also believe the people there will be unnecessarily put off by your petition, which may make it counterproductive to all of our goals.