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Are Apple and Facebook bad for democracy?

Mike Elgan | Oct. 6, 2015
Apple and Facebook are asserting themselves as gatekeepers of necessary information to the public. Can we trust them?

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We're trying to have a democracy here, and ideally an informed one.

Nowadays, however, almost everyone is too distracted with their smartphones to muster the attention span to put up with reading a newspaper or news magazine delivered by a publisher, or even watching TV news.

Instead, we get news through apps and on social networks. The biggest source of apps in the U.S. and the biggest social network are Apple's App Store and Facebook, respectively.

This trend transfers the job of gatekeeper of what political information reaches the public from publications, editors or news directors to the likes of Apple and Facebook -- the companies that choose, in Apple's case, which apps are allowed and which are banned or, in Facebook's case, which news stories or sources are favored by its secret algorithms.

What that means -- and there's no gentle way to put this, so I'm just going to say it -- is that the people in charge of what voters and citizens know are people motivated by selling tiny computers with "selfie cameras" or ads for tiny computers with "selfie cameras" (Samsung is currently the biggest advertiser on Facebook).

Apple's unsettling censorship

Apple bans lots of apps for lots of reasons. Some for bad taste, and others to stop bullying. But when it comes to information provided as a result of the political process, or information provided to affect the political process, Apple's criteria for censorship are -- well, they're in bad taste and smack of bullying.

Apple last week banned an app called Speed Camera Alert, created by a developer named Charles Yeh. The app alerted users to speed cameras based on location. It was simple in concept: The app took a list of Washington, D.C., area speed cameras published by the police department and entered that legal and public information into a map. When the user came within range of one of the camera locations, the app would pop up an alert and display the driver's current speed.

Apple banned the app because according to Apple, it "contains content or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal in all of the locations where the app is available."

Obviously Apple is implying that Speed Camera Alert encourages speeding. But is that Apple's call to make? The local democratic process has determined that the location of speed cameras is to be public knowledge -- thus the published list of locations. The app is just a way to reference that public information safely while driving.


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