FreePress.net, a media reform organization, occasionally sends out emails and hosts feedback campaigns where they ask people to contact someone in an organization which is doing something wrong. In many situations their publicity efforts are right-minded and centered on drawing attention to policy changes that can be corrected by publicizing the wrongdoing—in 2003 the FCC said they’d listen to Americans give their views on media concentration but then FCC Chairman Michael Powell said he’d attend only one hearing in Richmond, Virginia (in order to save money on hotel rooms and airline tickets), the American public was outraged. The public understood that this issue had the potential to adversely affect most citizens (regardless of political position). A series of well-attended town hall style hearings followed but Chairman Powell was absent for most of these hearings, clearly displaying his disrespect for the public’s views. FreePress.net (which started in late 2002) had begun and helped formulate a principled message illustrating why media concentration is bad news for everyone but the media conglomerates consolidating their power.
FreePress.net’s most recent campaign targets Apple Computers’ Steve Jobs, calling him out for Apple’s control over iPhone cameras and a related process Apple seeks to patent. FreePress.net’s campaign letter begins “Apple wants to control the camera on your phone.” and goes on:
The maker of the iPhone wants to patent a sensor that would detect when people are using their phone cameras to do things like film concerts — and give corporations the power to shut them down.
This is a compound statement and therefore less than clear; there are two issues bundled together here, both of which a tech-savvy organization should oppose.
Software patents are harmful to all computer users. Software patents restrict which algorithms are available for computer users to use. Even if you’re not a computer programmer, like most computer users, you are restricted by software patents. It is not hard to imagine how one could implement this “sensor” FreePress.net talks about completely in software—every time a user takes a picture the camera checks an internal exclusion list of coordinates which define regions where one is not allowed to take a picture. This list is updated as frequently as Apple likes via Apple’s update program. Apple charges anyone to add or remove a set of boundary points (any boundary points) to the exclusion list.
Apple might like it if the owners of Madison Square Garden (MSG), for example, didn’t want you using an iPhone to take a picture while standing on their land. MSG pays Apple to add MSG’s borders to Apple’s exclusion list. If anyone else wants to take pictures using Apple-made devices while standing on MSG’s land, they must pay Apple more than MSG paid to remove MSG’s boundaries from the Apple exclusion list. A bidding war develops between those who want to shoot photos/footage and those who don’t, each paying Apple to rewrite the exclusion list. Apple rushes to patent all possible implementations of the idea so they can stop other organizations from using the idea to create their own exclusion lists involving devices that organization makes. Others now have to go through Apple for a license, which Apple sells them for still more money and proprietors develop a large series of exclusion zones. You never know where your devices will fail by design until it is too late to prevent the failure.
We already see a bit of this kind of control with eBook readers—Amazon.com has removed books from people’s Kindles without their permission (1, 2). It’s not much of a different cuing mechanism to use physical location, date, or time and not require a central file server where people keep their recorded works. Some libraries want you to think it’s a good thing that some eBooks expire—become unreadable—after certain dates/times. Publishers like this so much they have a name for it: Digital Rights Management.
Controlling your computer without your permission is unethical but possible with proprietary software. Proprietary program is software designed to give you no control over what that program does; you have no legal right to inspect the program, modify the program to make sure it does only what you trust, or help your neighbor by distributing the program. You might think “I wouldn’t inspect or modify a program, I’m not a programmer!” but this line of reasoning also keeps your trusted code-happy friends from helping you. Anyone who would inspect source code on your behalf, improve the program to take out the spy code, and share the improved program with you are equally prohibited from helping you because the same lack of freedom to inspect, share, and modify a proprietary program likely applies to those computer users too. Free software is software that respects your freedom to inspect, share, and modify computer software. Choosing to not leverage the freedoms of free software is one thing; you only deny yourself something you might someday need. Software proprietors deny most computer users the freedoms of free software; freedom and power are very different things. Any alleged business benefits from selling proprietary software simply aren’t worth the social harm proprietary software causes by not letting friends behave as friends.
FreePress.net should care about software patents because software patent affect the public and greatly intersect with issues FreePress.net cares about (particularly as computers play a more important role in society). But I don’t think FreePress.net set out to argue against the social effect of software patents.
I think FreePress.net said the right things in their letter but they don’t go far enough to realistically address the problems they identify. If Apple responds to this campaign at all their response will be a PR statement filled with smooth talk about how you can trust them to not abuse their power—trust your master. The trick for Apple will be to sooth those who now realize Apple maintains more control over Apple-made devices than the device’s owner does while simultaneously not drawing attention to that fact. A useful response, on the other hand, is complete source code under a free software license allowing users to make their devices behave as they wish. FreePress.net should stand with the free software movement and argue explicitly for computers of all kinds to run only free software.
FreePress.net rightly points out that repressive regimes would love to have more control over your computer’s camera. Software freedom activists maintain that only you should control your computer’s camera (it matters not whether the camera is in a phone). If you own the computer, you should control that computer. Businesses should be allowed to sell you stuff that you then completely control afterwards.
Proprietary software denies you control over your devices as you deserve.
Apple’s power over their users does not hinge on software patents. The anti-social effect of proprietary software won’t be fixed with a letter-writing campaign. We can solve this issue by ending software patents (so free software can be written and maintained globally to solve this problem) and by making widely-advertised free software phones capable of taking pictures and movies ordinary most users can use on common phone networks.
This way proprietors who sell spyware phones (which is currently every cellphone maker out there) will have competition and users can switch to a phone that runs completely using only free software.