The content restrictions are unexplored territory. At the height of Windows’s market dominance, Microsoft had no role in determining what software would and wouldn’t run on its machines, much less whether the content inside that software was to be allowed to see the light of screen. Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore found his iPhone app rejected because it contained “content that ridicules public figures.” Fiore was well-known enough that the rejection raised eyebrows, and Apple later reversed its decision. But the fact that apps must routinely face approval masks how extraordinary the situation is: tech companies are in the business of approving, one by one, the text, images, and sounds that we are permitted to find and experience on our most common portals to the networked world. Why would we possibly want this to be how the world of ideas works, and why would we think that merely having competing tech companies—each of which is empowered to censor—solves the problem?
This is especially troubling as governments have come to realize that this framework makes their own censorship vastly easier: what used to be a Sisyphean struggle to stanch the distribution of books, tracts, and then websites is becoming a few takedown notices to a handful of digital gatekeepers. Suddenly, objectionable content can be made to disappear by pressuring a technology company in the middle. When Exodus International—”[m]obilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality”—released an app that, among other things, inveighed against homosexuality, opponents not only rated it poorly (one-star reviews were running two-to-one against five-star reviews) but also petitioned Apple to remove the app. Apple did.
To be sure, the Mac App Store, unlike its iPhone and iPad counterpart, is not the only way to get software (and content) onto a Mac. You can, for now, still install software on a Mac without using the App Store. And even on the more locked-down iPhone and iPad, there’s always the browser: Apple may monitor apps’ content—and therefore be seen as taking responsibility for it—but no one seems to think that Apple should be in the business of restricting what websites Safari users can visit. Question to those who stand behind the anti-Exodus petition: would you also favor a petition demanding that Apple prevent iPhone and iPad users from getting to Exodus’s website on Safari? If not, what’s different, since Apple could trivially program Safari to implement such restrictions? Does it make sense that South Park episodes are downloadable through iTunes, but the South Park app containing the same content was banned from the App Store?
Given that outside apps can still run on a Mac and on Android, it’s worth asking what makes the Stores and Marketplaces so dominant—compelling enough that developers are willing to run the gauntlet of approval and take a 30 percent hit on revenue instead of simply selling their apps directly. The iPhone restricts outside code, but developers could still, in many cases, manage to offer functionality through a website accessible through the Safari browser. Few developers do, and there’s work to be done to ferret out what separates the rule from the exception. The Financial Times is one content provider that pulled its app from the [iOS] App Store to avoid sharing customer data and profits with Apple, but it doesn’t have much company.
The answer may lie in seemingly trivial places. Even one or two extra clicks can dissuade a user from consummating what he or she meant to do—a lesson emphasized in the Microsoft case, where the ready availability of IE on the desktop was seen as a signal advantage over users’ having to download and install Netscape. The default is all-powerful, a notion confirmed by the value of deals to designate what search engine a browser will use when first installed. Such deals provided 97 percent of Firefox-maker Mozilla’s revenue in 2010—$121 million. The safety valve of “off-road” apps seems less helpful when people are steered so effortlessly to Stores and Marketplaces for their apps.
Security is also a factor—consumers are willing to consign control over their code to OS vendors when they see so much malware out in the wild. There are a variety of approaches to dealing with the security problem, some of which include a phenomenon called sandboxing—running software in a protected environment. Sandboxing is soon to be required of Mac App Store apps. More information on sandboxing, and a discussion of its pros and cons, can be found here.
The fact is that today’s developers are writing code with the notion not just of consumer acceptance, but also vendor acceptance. If a coder has something cool to show off, she’ll want it in the Android Marketplace and the iOS App Store; neither is a substitute for the other. Both put the coder into a long-term relationship with the OS vendor. The user gets put in the same situation: if I switch from iPhone to Android, I can’t take my apps with me, and vice versa. And as content gets funneled through apps, it may mean I can’t take my content, either—or, if I can, it’s only because there’s yet another gatekeeper like Amazon running an app on more than one platform, aggregating content. The potentially suffocating relationship with Apple or Google or Microsoft is freed only by a new suitor like Amazon, which is structurally positioned to do the same thing.
A flowering of innovation and communication was ignited by the rise of the PC and the Web and their generative characteristics. Software was installed one machine at a time, a relationship among myriad software makers and users. Sites could appear anywhere on the Web, a relationship among myriad webmasters and surfers. Now activity is clumping around a handful of portals: two or three OS makers that are in a position to manage all apps (and content within them) in an ongoing way, and a diminishing set of cloud hosting providers like Amazon that can provide the denial-of-service resistant places to put up a website or blog.
Both software developers and users should demand more. Developers should look for ways to reach their users unimpeded, through still-open platforms, or through pressure on the terms imposed by the closed ones. And users should be ready to try “off-roading” with the platforms that still allow it—hewing to the original spirit of the PC, perhaps amplified by systems that let apps have a trial run on a device without being given the keys to the kingdom. If we allow ourselves to be lulled into satisfaction with walled gardens, we’ll miss out on innovations to which the gardeners object, and we’ll set ourselves up for censorship of code and content that was previously impossible. We need some angry nerds.
Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science at Harvard University, and author of The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It.