Strong opinions, weakly held

Free Software Foundation vs iPhone

The Free Software Foundation’s list of reasons why you should avoid the iPhone have gotten plenty of coverage, which is of course the point of making such a list. I assume their tactics are the same as Greenpeace’s criticism of Apple’s environmental practices.

The goal is, of course, to get Apple to change its behavior, but I suspect the primary goal is also to educate consumers about the aims of the groups making the criticism. Apple is more effective than any other company in technology at garnering tons of press coverage, most of it positive. Activist groups target Apple with the knowledge that it’s the best way to advance what I expect is probably their primary goal — publicizing their cause.

The FSF wants consumers to think about their definition of free software, the risks of DRM, and how your software may expose your private information without your knowledge. Criticizing Apple on those grounds is clearly an effective way to get that message out in front of the public.

In the end, Greenpeace was successful in getting Apple to change its practices, but I suspect that was less important than the light they shined on the bad environmental practices that pervade the computer manufacturing industry. I also think it’s more important that more customers will be thinking about whether they will accept DRM and who is allowed to control what software they put on their phone than is any success the FSF might have in provoking change from Apple. That’s probably a good thing, because I think it was easier for Apple to reduce its packaging and do a better job of recycling old parts than it will be for them to give up some of the control they’re exercising over the iPhone platform.


  1. Dennis Savage

    July 18, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    I’m not sure I can take the FSF seriously when one of their points is that a GPS-enabled iPhone can be used to locate you. You would think they would understand that all cell phones work like that (GPS-enabled or not), and that they don’t implies strongly that either a) they’re uninformed technophobes or b) they’re outright lying in order to strike FUD into the non-tech population. Neither looks good for them.

    (I won’t call them paranoid, because there’s evidence that authorities here and in China are tracing people by their cell phones. It’s that singling out the iPhone for airing this point implies that other phones don’t have this, ah, misfeature.)

  2. I already argued about this at great length on the Well, so I shan’t repeat all of it here, but I think the FSF’s point about location is absolutely valid.

    The new iPhone locates you by assisted GPS, which gives an exceptionally precise position compared to just finding you by cell tower, and Apple has also designed the system so that location services (certainly Maps, possibly any service) goes through them and not the carrier, as well as reserving the right to share that data with third parties, albeit in a supposedly-anonymized form. Which is unusual, to say the least – phones don’t usually call home to their manufacturers and carriers don’t usually share private customer data with anyone they feel like.

    And it’s also one of the first phones with such accurate GPS, certainly the one with the most publicity around it, so it makes sense to use it as a vehicle for raising concerns about privacy and control with location-based applications.

    Apple’s ultratight control of the hardware and software is another big concern with a phone with these new capabilities. Your ability to really control and know what’s being sent back home is non-existent. And I don’t know, I don’t feel like I’m being too paranoid in suggesting that one day the government may come to Apple (and other handset makers) and ask nicely for backdoor access or unauthorized user location transmission, perhaps on a mass scale. Handsets that let you actually control their software could preempt that.

  3. Dennis Savage

    July 19, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I can’t find a cite for it at the moment, but I believe the Enhanced 911 services that were mandated for mobile phones were supposed to be locatable to within 100 feet, which is probably sufficient for darker purposes (including figuring out who else is nearby, good for detecting political groups). And all that info is apparently available without a court order in some jurisdictions. Likewise, recently there’s been concern that the FBI is gathering not only numbers called but also keypad entries after the number is reached: passwords, PINs, that sort of thing.

    As it is, for your cell phone to work its location must be known, and so it must send a signal to the cell towers so the network knows where to send the call. It’s hard to design around that without your own spectrum, but good luck.

    We’ve been hearing for a while that if/as the Mac got more market share we would see more viruses and such for the platform, and perhaps that’s true. I see FSF’s and Greenpeace’s efforts to use Apple as the linchpin of their publicity campaigns as a cultural version of such exploits. All’s fair in a good cause, I guess, or is it that the ends justify the means? (To be sure, calling a single blogpost a campaign is overstating it, let’s see if the FSF follows up on it.)

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