On Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 22, 1984, Apple ran one of the most famous TV advertisements of all time. It opened with a gray theater full of people with shaved heads, wearing gray jumpsuits, staring expressionlessly at a large screen. From the screen, an Orwellian “Big Brother” intoned, “We are one people, one whim, one resolve, one course. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we shall bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail.”
As he spoke, a blond woman ran into the theater, bearing a sledgehammer. She threw it at the screen, and the screen exploded. An off-camera voice declared, “On Jan. 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Today, more than two decades later, the message remains tremendously powerful: Innovative technology in the hands of brave people can free us all from tyranny.
Fifteen years later, in the fall of 2009, Apple officially launched the iPhone in China in partnership with a domestic mobile carrier, China Unicom. As a condition for entry into the Chinese market, Apple had to agree to the Chinese government’s censorship criteria in vetting the content of all iPhone apps available for download on devices sold in mainland China. (Most apps are created by independent developers— individuals, companies, or organizations—and then submitted to Apple for approval and inclusion in its app store.) On Apple’s special store for the Chinese market, apps related to the Dalai Lama are censored, as is one containing information about the exiled Uighur dissident leader Rebiya Kadeer. Apple similarly censors apps for iPads sold in China. So much for that revolutionary, Big Brother-destroying Super Bowl ad. Apple seems quite willing to accommodate Big Brother’s demands for the sake of market access.
Companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and many other digital platforms and services have created a new, virtual public sphere that is largely shaped, built, owned, and operated by private companies. These companies now mediate human relationships of all kinds, including the relationship between citizens and governments. They exercise a new layer of sovereignty over what we can and cannot do with our digital lives, on top of and across the sovereignty of governments. Sometimes—as with the Arab spring—these corporate-run global platforms can help empower citizens to challenge their governments. But at other times, they can constrain our freedom in insidious ways, sometimes in cooperation with governments and sometimes independently. The result is certainly not as rosy as Apple’s marketing department would have us believe.
Apple’s censorship problems reach well beyond China into unexpected places. In March 2010 Apple shut down, without notice, an iPad application for Stern, one of Germany’s biggest magazines. It had published erotic content in the printed magazine, which was automatically duplicated in the iPad app. This content is perfectly legal in Germany, but because some pages of a specific issue were deemed in violation of Apple’s app standards, the entire magazine was censored through the app store. Apple told another German magazine, Bildt, that it had to alter content if it wanted to keep its app.
That year Apple also censored a cartoon version of James Joyce’s Ulysses that contained a few images of nudity, despite the fact that the app had been marked as containing adult content. The app was eventually reinstated, but only after a massive public outcry and widespread media coverage. Apple also censors controversial political and religious content, including several apps featuring the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore because they “ridiculed public figures.” His app mocking President Obama—containing the type of political humor frequently seen on television and in newspapers—was restored soon after Fiore won his Pulitzer. But other cartoonists and satirists were not so fortunate.
In response to widespread controversy over app censorship, in late 2010 Apple publicized its app review guidelines and established a review board so that developers would have a more systematic way to appeal decisions made against their apps. But censorship complaints have continued, from both the left and the right of the American political spectrum.
More than 800 million of people “inhabit” Facebook’s digital kingdom. If it were a country, it would be the world’s third largest, after India and China. Call it Facebookistan. It is governed by a set of rules based on an ideology espoused by its management team and “founding father,” who govern their kingdom as they believe is in their users’—and their own—best interest.
Zuckerberg advocates what has come to be known as “radical transparency”: the idea that humanity would be better off if everybody were more transparent about who they are and what they do. Anonymous online speech runs directly counter to this ideology. He has said that people who do not reveal their true identities online “lack integrity.”
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