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Apple's App Decision Mixes Ethical 'Apples and Oranges'

 Apples and Oranges

While the FTC continues to hold hearings on the ability of carriers to manipulate web traffic, a wider struggle for an open Internet continues to be played out in corporate offices. Search Engine Journal rep orts that Apple is the latest tech giant to jump into the ongoing ethical debate over Wikileaks, pulling iPhone apps designed for the controversial whistle-blower’s site off the digital shelves of its Apps Store.

“Apps must comply with local laws and may not put an individual or group in harm’s way,” said an Apple spokeswoman in announcing the decision to take down the three-day old Wikileaks app.

A “slippery slope” argument at best, Apple’s corporate policy statement overreaches and puts the company in a dubious ethical position. What constitutes “harm” and what actions could “put an individual or group in harm’s way?” The breadth of these categories is enormous and – minus charges or convictions for criminal activity, which has not yet occurred in the Wikileaks case – makes Apple a judge of what may be termed ‘moral hazards.’

Does online gambling constitute harm to the gambler? Could Apple be the judge if an app to a gaming site puts an online gambler’s spouse or children “in harm’s way?” So far, at least, Apple has not okayed any true online gaming apps for its Apps Store. With Wall Street (yes, Wall Street) brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald making an application to the State of Nevada to operate a mobile sports gambling operation, would government approval open the way for iPhone gambling apps? We’ll see.

Yet, without charges forthcoming, Apple has determined that the publication of leaked U.S. military and diplomatic documents by Wikileaks puts individuals in harms way, thereby justifying its decision to shut down Wikileaks apps. Will Apple similarly shelve iPhone apps designed for the New York Times, which re-published the ‘juiciest’ (and, perhaps, most harmful) information from the huge Wikileaks data dump? It is, after all, the ‘leaking’ of secret documents and not their publication, per se, which is illegal as aviolation of U.S. secrecy laws.  (For this reason, the soldier that downloaded the controversial secret files has been charged and is being held (in solitary confinement, no less) awaiting trial, while Wikileaks is unlikely to be prosecuted unless there is some evidence that the organization was somehow complicit in the digital ‘theft’ of the secret documents.)

Apple is, in effect, making a commercial decision about how a publisher exercises its constitutionally protected “free press” rights, a decision already made by PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon.  The question remains, however, whether this ‘commercial decision’ was really made because of supposed illegality on Wikileaks’ part or in order to protect individuals from potential harm. (The cat is kind of out of the bag with week-long coverage of the leaked documents on the front page of the New York Times.)

Google, meanwhile, has left open all of the Android apps developed to access Wiklileaks, according to reports from Reuters. Google’s decision, keeping with its “Do No Evil” ethos, certainly differentiates its reaction to Wikileaks from Apple’s, which seems (at least to this reformed, ex-corporate lawyer) to be more a thinly-veiled and therefore ‘unprincipled’ public relations decision, rather than a corporate policy decision about illegal or harmful content.

Search Engine Journal’s Rob Young notes that, “(Google’s) open approach to an application ecosystem is a major part of Android’s rationale.” However, he also points out and explains the “other motivating factors” behind Google’s option for the status quo. Young hits the nail squarely on the head with the following observations about Google’s rationale:

“First, Google’s target community — which includes Open Source lovers and developers — far more frequently side with WikiLeaks. Second, Google’s marketplace is still playing catchup with Apple’s, which is double its size. And third, intentionally hindering WikiLeaks has been shown — thanks to cyber attacks by Anonymous and other groups — to have other, more interesting risks.”

Kudos to Search Engine Journal and Mr. Young for calling out Apple, and for  ‘calling a spade a spade’ in outlining Google’s policy motivations. Jobs & Co. were clearly caught out mixing their ethical “apples and oranges,” covering their corporate nether regions with a lawyerish position about illegal and harmful content.

Utilizing corporate sleight of hand (i.e., mixing ethical apples with oranges) to conceal corporate self-interest behind policies meant to bar clear illegality or clearly harmful acts may come back to haunt the ‘suits’ in Palo Alto. Unlike Google’s execs, Apple’s corporate core clearly favors ‘apples’ over ‘oranges’ when it comes to protecting their own commercial interests versus protecting the principle of an open Internet.

Barry James covers internet marketing and related tech topics for Wolf21.com, a Toronto-based firm offering a full line of SEO services.

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