Apple app store and the Manhattan Declaration iPhone app – push technology and “control.”

A month ago I walked into the Apple Store at the Annapolis mall to find a reason not to buy a Christmas present for my family from Apple. That was a switch. We usually walk in there to have a good time. My 5-year-old likes to go to the iPads and play racing games. My wife keeps trying out the newest iMac – she wants to replace her aging Dell desktop with one.  I myself have a MacBook Pro and a 3Gs iPhone. But I am very concerned about Apple and even more concerned with where our society is headed.

Apple is in trouble with a lot of people because of its censorship policies. It recently pulled a Christian app – The Manhattan Declaration one. The reason Apple gave?  It is “offensive to large groups of people.”  Many branded it “anti-gay” and a “hate app,” though the Manhattan Declaration is mostly a line drawn in the sand by a lot of church people on what the church has for centuries defined as marriage.  Whether you agree with where the line is drawn or not, making a statement does not automatically mean hate. This app simply gave access to a firm outline of a position and an argument.

I am convinced that Apple withdrew the app, not because of what it is (or was) but because of certain people’s reaction to it. 7,700 signed a petition to Apple and asked them to remove it. The company did. It is going to be interesting to see what happens next, because supporters of the app have now gotten over 61,000 names on a petition of their own to reinstate it. Apple is not famous for being a dog wagged by its tail, though, and so far they have not budged.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state that I presently work for one of the ministries that support the Manhattan Declaration, Breakpoint Ministries).

A larger question bothers me immeasurably: Is the Internet (and mobile, wi-fi, all-things-digital) moving into a zone where companies,  governments, or certain self-defined ‘large numbers of people’ can control the content that is accessible – and thus direct the debate and discussion in a society?

That was hinted at once before – in the late ’90s. The Internet was still young. Something came along called “Push Technology.” Many felt that the Internet was too wild, the information deluge too strong, and there was too much garbage online. They thought that someone needed to come along and clean it up. The old-timers online, many of us from the era of BBSes, Usenet and other “geeky” online pioneering groups, howled in protest. That was exactly what personal computing, online connections and digital networking were invented to circumvent! The Internet should be democratic to its core. No one should be able to control or influence the content stream. People should have free and open access to information.  In the very early days the power-mongers and legacy gatekeepers did not pay much attention to the Internet. They didn’t see everyone going over to this new medium. I talked to many of them (trying to sell them on the Internet). The idea seemed to be that it was for nerds and hobbyists and a few revolutionaries. Real people and real money were not there. What did they care? So the Internet was allowed to develop open and free.

Then, somewhere along the way, things changed.  Regular people all over the world discovered that this even-playing-field with its democratic and open exchange of information was a GREAT thing. People shifted much of their gaze and a large portion of their free hours to it. Gatekeeper alarms started to go off. Businesses sniffed the money to be made. There was a mad rush to the stock market (the dot-com bust followed).  “Push technology” was dreamed up. CONTROL was being lost by traditional gatekeepers. It had to be regained. For the first time, I sensed fear in the legacy gatekeepers.  That was about 1998.

I recently came across an amusing workshop website from the era entitled: Taming the Internet:Push Technology. (The amusing part is the word “Taming”).  Yes, controlling information flow was really going to be for our good! It brought back memories. Microsoft even got into the game – they began building push technology elements into Microsoft Explorer – their web browser, which was in a bloody battle with Netscape in what as called “The browser wars.” A furor arose online. Many Net purists decried the temptation to control users’ information and replace it with that presented by large companies, carriers and other net media companies (no one even dared mention governments).  On the “control” side, the higher-minded ones advanced the notion that only the gatekeepers and channels really knew what was good for people.

The debate died out quickly, though. It was overrun by a reality: change was taking place at such blinding speed and people were in love with free search. The advent of  powerful search engines and people learning how to find, display (and publish) their OWN  information was a huge social movement.  The horses were out of the barn.

The mad rush towards push technology subsided, or at least faded into the background. Microsoft gave up on it for the time. (However, some of the elements built into the back-end of some browsers for eventual “push” functionality began to be hijacked by sinister coders and something known as “spyware” or “adware” evolved in the early 2000’s. We all began to get a taste of the worst elements of “push” technology and manipulative control).

The “free” Internet is more popular than ever. But the urge to control is back with a vengeance. In some places it is government pressing for control. China is dealing hard and Google, to its credit, resisted the government of the world’s most populous nation. In our own freedom-loving America, the “control” thing is popping up in strange places. Most of it is subtle pressure from rather obscure policies (like the recent FCC ruling on Net Neutrality).

Then along comes this issue with Apple. What part does “control” play?  I would have been just as upset if Apple had censured an app on the other side of the debate from where I personally stand, as long as the app made a fair and reasonable statement of its beliefs available.

The real issue is the availability of information.  I am frightened by the fact that some of the technologies that have given us such evenness of information distribution over the past 20 years are now coming under proprietary control in certain places. The Apple app store is just one of those places and it is just for this moment. What about other places and future moments? The future presents a narrower view of this free flow of information than we experienced the last 2 decades. In that regard, I don’t care who the gatekeepers are or even what they believe. I just don’t like them. And I hate to see the dream we all got to experience falling under their blade.

This “control” threat was beaten off once, pretty successfully. Can it be defeated again? The stakes are much higher now, for all parties concerned.