The “walled garden” becomes a prison for reality

A British tabloid revealed today that Apple has filed for a patent on a system for disabling the video camera on an iPhone or iPad when its user attempts to film a concert or other interdicted live event. This is a much more threatening development than most may realize.

A while back I said this:

[The iPad] is not the future of personal computing, because the person doesn’t control it. The iPad is a media-delivery device controlled by Apple and the RIAA/MPAA content cartel, not the person who ostensibly bought it. It’s not empowerment, it’s a glossy-surfaced pretense of empowerment.

I caught some crap for sounding like a Richard-Stallman-like extremist when I said that. But those who think I took an ‘extreme’ position should be eating their words now, because Apple’s patent filing perfectly illustrates the risks of relying on computer hardware and software that you don’t control down to the bit level. And not the worst risk, either. Glenn Reynolds aka Instapundit observes “Sounds like totalitarian governments would love this.”

On their past record, can there be any doubt of Apple’s willingness to quietly slipstream this technology into a future release of iOS, leaving its victims unaware that their ability to record a police action or a political demonstration is now conditional on whether the authorities have deployed the right sort of IR flasher to invisibly censor the event?

As we become increasingly dependent on computers and the Internet to mediate our communications with others, the integrity of our social and political networks requires that we have complete control of those computers. Without that control, not only are we liable to have our communications with others blocked and filtered, the evidence of reality itself can be suppressed. Concerts, police actions, and political demonstrations can be censored from the Internet-enabled conversation. These events can, in an increasingly important sense, be made unwitnessable – deleted from social memory.

It is difficult to overstate how dangerous a prospect this is. We come near the territory of Orwell’s “1984” here; Apple’s video-suppressing devices would create memory holes. The “walled garden” would imprison not just its users but reality and history. We must not allow this to happen.

When I advocate for open-source software, one common form of pushback I get is that only computer geeks ever need care about this issue, because only computer geeks will ever engage in the sort of customization that open source enables. Apple’s patent application is the clearest possible demonstration that this argument is bogus.

Open source matters to all of us. It matters as a defense against control by others. Even those of us who don’t have the ability or desire to hack software will increasingly rely on the ability of skeptical third parties to audit the software we rely on – to guard against the possibility that our cameras could be disabled by stealth, that the software we rely on could be subverted into an instrument of censorship and repression.

Apple’s “walled garden” is a prison in which the jailers can change the terms of sentencing at any time – until we break out. But singling out Apple would be to miss the forest for one tree; it is not only the iPhone and iPad that are dangerous to our liberties, it is all closed-source software everywhere in our Internet-connected devices. What we do not control can be – and, as the Apple patent application shows, will be – used to control us.

You can take back control. Demand Android in your phones, Linux or BSD in your computers, open source in your Internet router and your digital camera and your power meter and game console and voting machines and even your automobile’s control systems. Otherwise…how will you know who they really serve?

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