Google Won’t Allow Porn on Its Smart Glasses. Does That Mean It’s Turning Into Apple?

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June 6 2013 10:51 AM

Forbidden Fruit

By banning Glass porn, is Google becoming more like Apple?

An attendee tries Google Glass during the Google I/O developer conference on May 17, 2013 in San Francisco, California.
Google Glass is not fair game for willy-nilly software experimentation, even in its beta phase

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the great mobile platform wars, the lines were drawn years ago. Apple built a walled city for its iPhones and iPads, a place apps can enter only once they’ve received the blessing of the guards. Google’s Android devices maintained an open-border policy, allowing pretty much anyone in so long as she obeys a few ground rules.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Google has long been critical of Apple’s “walled gardens.” In an interview with the Guardian last year, Google co-founder Sergey Brin identified Apple’s “restrictive” ecosystem as an existential threat to Internet freedom. He went on:

"The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation."

Apple, for its part, has taken some potshots at the riffraff that finds its way onto to Google’s grounds. Asked by an app developer in 2010 whether Apple would ever allow unsigned apps on the iPhone, Steve Jobs scoffed:

“You know, there’s a porn store for Android. You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go—so we’re not going to go there.”

The store Jobs was referring to was run by a company called MiKandi, which has gone on to find huge success with its sexually explicit app marketplace for Android devices. So it was no surprise last week when MiKandi announced plans to build the first porn app for Google Glass. The app, unabashedly titled “Tits and Glass,” received more than 10,000 Web hits on the day it launched, and a dozen Glass beta-testers quickly signed up. But the stampede was short-lived. It turned out Google had updated its developer policies just days earlier to prohibit “content that contains nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material.” Asked whether that spelled doom for MiKandi, Google confirmed, “Any Glassware that violates this policy will be blocked from appearing on Glass.”

That took MiKandi by surprise. In a blog post on Monday, the company wrote,

“When we received our Glass and started developing our app two weeks ago, we went through the policy very carefully to make sure we were developing the app within the terms. We double-checked again last week when making the site live on the Internet and available for install. ... We were not notified of any changes and still haven’t been notified by Google.”

Indeed, that particular policy change seemed to have slipped through without a lot of fanfare. But it was actually part of a slate of 11 new policies that Google added to its developer agreement on Friday, one of which had in fact made immediate headlines: a ban on apps that use face-recognition technology. That change came just a week after a San Francisco startup called Lambda Labs announced that it was developing the first face-recognition interface for Glass. Another new policy prohibited apps that disable Glass’ display while the camera is active. Both had alarmed privacy advocates and contributed to a surprisingly vicious backlash against a device that won’t even be released to the public for several more months.

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Together, the moves seemed to many to amount to a closing of the gates to the Google kingdom—and smacked of the type of conservatism that the tech world has long associated with Cupertino. Is it possible that Google is starting to find some wisdom in Apple’s walled-garden approach now that it’s the company whose reputation hinges on society’s acceptance of a new brand of mobile gadget?

Google insists there has been no philosophical shift in Mountain View. Of the 11 new developer policies for Glass, nine were taken straight from the existing policies for Android’s Google Play Store, including the one prohibiting sexual content. The company says it has always viewed the Glass policies as a work in progress, and that’s part of why it has been beta-testing the device so extensively before launching it publicly. And it’s to Google’s credit that it changed its policies wholesale and explained its rationale. Apple, in contrast, rarely feels the need to justify its decisions with anything more than a curt “because-we-said-so.”

Still, the message to developers is clear: Google Glass is not fair game for willy-nilly software experimentation, even in its beta phase. It is to be a tightly controlled environment, not an open platform. There are strictures on the Google Play Store for Android, too, but there is a difference. Android devices can be rooted—indeed, the fact that you can gain unfettered access to the guts of the system is part of their appeal. But Google has signaled from the start that it will take a firm stand against anyone who roots Glass. The side doors, in other words, will be shut and locked.

This makes sense, from a pragmatic standpoint. Glass is Google’s version of the iPhone, in the sense that it’s a signature piece of hardware that it’s unleashing on the world. And Google doesn’t want any unsavory apps mucking it up. It also makes sense from a “don’t-be-evil” standpoint. Google may get some flak from techies for cracking down on edgy software, but that’s nothing compared to the outrage it will incur from the masses—not to mention Congress—if it allows Glass to launch with apps that are broadly viewed as invasive or creepy.

Google’s subtle shift demonstrates that the company’s commitment to openness has its limits. It’s easy to rail against walled gardens when you’re standing outside them. But when you build a piece of hardware that’s like no other on the market, then the precious garden is yours—and you’re going to want to keep it nice and clean.

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