28 June 2011

"Closed" networks and cultural arbitration

Last week we saw the latest pothole in the road to Utopia for iTunes:
Apple Inc. says it has removed an application called "ThirdIntifada" from its App Store following complaints that it glorified violence against Israel.
Of course, when they say "removed" they could just as easily have said "approved and then had to be told this was one of the stupidest things imaginable."

I've already written how the "big four" tech companies - Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook - have made our lives amazingly easier and they have connected people in ways we could barely imagine just a few years ago.  But because those companies have understandably placed limits on those markets and marketplaces, and have tried to create some rules for entry, they've had to make a host of judgment calls about what gets in and what doesn't.   By fate or by design, we're now at a rather alarming point.  Middle-managers at tech companies are regularly policing free speech and global commerce, and occasionally wielding more power in a single mouse click than some foreign ministers could hope to wield in a term of office.

It's hard to define social networks and commerce platforms with hundreds of millions of users as "closed" - especially when the administrators of them want as many users as possible. But they do want to be the gatekeepers of speech and commerce, insisting on approving the software that appears on their platforms.  They are now they are forced to make judgment calls I'm certain they never anticipated.  The folks at Facebook did not intend to be the folks who determine "obscene" content, yet here they are, establishing the "visible aerola" standard for breastfeeding pictures.  Apple never intended to mediate the Arab-Israeli conflict or promote the idea of "praying away the gay" or help drivers avoid sobriety checkpoints.

There's no doubt in my mind that the more apps they approve, the more mistakes they'll make, and the more likely regulation with plenty of unintended consequences will appear.

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