People make decisions based on information they receive. That information influences their behavior and world view, and when you control the flow of information, you control people. Governments in countries like China, North Korea, and Iran have total control over the media. They curtail or censor everything they don’t like or want their people to know.
A similar threat — censorship and control over media — is emerging here in the US. Both Apple and Facebook are working on their own mechanisms to ‘deliver’ news. This is not an open mechanism but is something tightly controlled by these companies.
The biggest danger, in my opinion, comes from Apple, which is infamous for draconian censorship. The company has totalitarian control over the iOS ecosystem though the App Store — the only way publishers and developers can take their works to millions of iOS users.
Apple continues to remove from its App Store apps that can be used to inform the public of what the government is doing. Just a few days ago, Apple removed an app called Metadata+ that used data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to inform users whenever a US drone killed someone. The company also rejected an app called Speed Camera Alert, which informed people of the locations of speeding cameras. Speed cameras are public information and even the police had no objection in the publication of the app.
Why is Apple restricting the flow of such information to users? And should Apple have the power to control what information flows to its millions of users — even, and especially, when it is ‘public’ information?
These apps that Apple recently removed from its store are the very kind of apps that bring important information to people, and that can influence what kind of society we build.
The problem grows deeper as Apple moves towards ‘curated’ (I would call it ‘curtailed’) news. The company is baking its own ‘News’ App into the iOS platform and, according to a job posting “is looking for passionate, knowledgeable editors to help identify and deliver the best in breaking national, global, and local news.”
This raises some serious questions in light of the way Apple censors apps that deliver news or information. What news stories should we expect Apple to filter from its News app? Will Apple allow positive news stories about Android? Will the company allow political satire? Will it allow any news items like ‘children killed in drone strike’? Will the company allow flow of public information like speeding cameras?
I don’t have high hopes.
Apple’s business is not about protecting the our democracy or spreading information. Apple’s business is selling hardware. When they get control over what information reaches their millions of customers, that’s a very dangerous point in our democracy.
As I mentioned before, Apple is not alone. Facebook, which is infamous for filtering content is working on its own ‘news’ platform — Instant Article. Facebook will not show your unbiased stories, it will show you what they want to show you, using some mysterious algorithm. The company has been caught many times playing with its news stream algorithm. Will Facebook Instant Article show negative stories about Internet.org, which is threatening net neutrality in countries like India?
Can these companies do this? Yes, of course they can. They can control their platforms the way they want. There is not much that can be done except to educate users not to trust or rely on these sources.
And that’s where the catch is. Once a user is stuck inside the whirlpool of Apple News and Facebook Instant Article — there will be only one opinion.