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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?

Why should Apple ban an interface to public and legal information based on the outrageous assumption that geo-located access to this data encourages criminal behavior? Maybe the user wants a constant reminder about speed limits in order to always drive within the law. Maybe the user wants to identify the location of speed cameras as a hobby.

There is also an apparent double standard being applied here. Other apps, including and especially the Google-owned Waze app, do something categorically comparable.

Waze is a traffic and navigation app. Users can report the location of various temporary situations of interest to motorists, including road hazards, vehicles on the shoulder and traffic jams.

Waze also facilitates the sharing of locations of police cars. Multiple police departments and organizations have complained about Waze, saying that it encourages attacks on police cars. And still, Apple hasn't banned Waze. (For the record, I don't think Apple should ban either app.)

So why has Apple banned Speed Camera Alert but not Waze? Is it because Google is a big guy and Charles Yeh is a little guy? Is it because Waze does many things and Speed Camera Alert does only a few things?

In another example, Apple last week removed an app called Metadata+. The app exists to report deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes.

Metadata+ was designed by Josh Begley, an editor at The Intercept -- a publication that also employs Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists who brought us the Edward Snowden revelations.

Metadata+ is the latest of several apps that perform a similar function, and each previous one has been banned by Apple.

The data for Metadata+ comes from information legally published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit news organization.

The data isn't illegal. It's not explicitly violent. Apple's reason for the removal is that the app contained "excessively rude or objectionable content."

An informed democracy requires that citizens know what their government is doing in their name, especially in matters of war.

The vagaries of human nature cause the public to care far less about casualties meted out by armed drones than by other means -- essentially giving a free pass to the politicians ordering those strikes, politically speaking.

Yet the claimed purpose of Metadata+ -- to use smartphones and an app to get people to care about drone strikes (which are paid for with the taxes of would-be users of said app) -- is considered too objectionable to allow.

On what basis can Apple claim that this knowledge is "objectionable," especially given the fact that it would have been downloaded and used by people specifically seeking out that information?

 

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