When millions of people communicate using a technology that is entirely under the control of a private firm, what obliges the firm to act less like a profit-making enterprise and more like a government? And if it does, what sort of government should it act like? These questions come up when we consider what recently happened to an iPhone application developed by Exodus International, which is (in its own words) “the world’s largest ministry to individuals and families impacted by homosexuality.”
From the start, Apple has held an extremely tight leash on iPhone apps sold through its official iTunes store. Developers must go through an elaborate application process, and reportedly any apps with explicit sexual content never make it through. (Full disclosure: I do not own an iPhone, and my sole connection with Apple is the fact that I use and own Mac computers.) Apparently, the app for Exodus International, which evidently just linked the user to other online resources, passed muster by Apple itself and went on sale some months ago. Then a Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transsexual nonprofit group called Truth Wins Out started a petition on a website called Change.org to get Apple to pull the app. Eventually, 150,000 signatures were collected and presented to Apple, which removed it by March 24. A similar fate overtook an app related to the Manhattan Declaration last November. The Manhattan Declaration is a document which, among other things, reaffirms a commitment to traditional marriage. Reportedly only 10,000 signatures were needed to get the Manhattan Declaration pulled.
Reaction to the removal of Exodus International’s app was pretty bipolar, in the mathematical sense. People who favor the positions and activities of organizations like Exodus International thought it was a shame. As a signer of the Manhattan Declaration, I get updates from the organization and they sent out a notice about the Exodus International incident, which is how I found out about it. On the opposition side, comments ranged from the obscene to the nuanced. For an example of the more reasoned objections, here is a quote from a blooger named “sfbob” on the left-leaning Daily Kos website: “There are always serious questions to answer when it comes to what some would consider to be censorship. A couple of aspects of the situation however seemed to point me more in the direction of wanting the app removed. The app was somehow rated by Apple as being ‘suitable for all users’ (or words to that effect).” The blogger goes on to express concern that teenagers in doubt as to their sexuality might be harmed by the kind of information Exodus International provides. But his second point is the one I want to focus on. He writes, “In addition, it's arguable that the nature of an iTunes app does not really rise to the level of free speech.” As a private company, Apple has the ultimate right to decide what is and is not sold at their stores and used on their iPhones. So, according to sfbob, this right trumps any rights to free speech that might be advanced in favor of the app.
I will be among the first to agree that the right of free speech is not absolute. For example, I think it is a good thing that Apple won’t approve sexually explicit apps for the iPhone. I also think it is a good thing that child pornography is illegal, though you can probably find a few radical free-speech advocates under rocks and various places, who would oppose even those kinds of laws. And the classic example of a person who would go to jail for yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater on April 1 to pull an April Fools joke shows that free speech is not an absolute right, but is rightly regulated by governments and laws for the protection of citizens who might otherwise be harmed.
That raises the next question: by what means should we regulate free speech? In a democracy, laws regulating free speech are originated by legislative bodies duly constituted to represent the will of the people, administered by an executive branch which is (ideally) also subject to the people, and adjudicated by judges who apply the laws in conformance to the people’s will as embodied in the laws. While this makes me sound like a starry-eyed idealist these days, I still think that is the best way to make law, including laws about free speech.
Contrast that to what happened in the cases of the Manhattan Declaration and Exodus International apps. A private firm offered some apps for sale, two out of many thousands of other apps dealing with all kinds of human activity. The apps themselves violated no law. Because of a perceived hazard to a group in which Truth Wins Out was interested, that private organization started a petition drive which ultimately collected 150,000 signatures. Presented with this evidence that a lot of people didn’t like the idea that Apple sold Exodus International’s app, Apple canned it.
How does petitioning differ from the formal legislative democratic process? In a number of ways. I doubt that any independent firm audited the petition process, which can easily be manipulated unless controls are in place similar to those used for petitions to gain access to running for elective office. Second, there is no publicly known rule by which Apple determines whether they will accede to the wishes expressed in a petition. The Daily Kos blogger noted that the petition to expunge the Manhattan Declaration app had only 10,000 signatures, while the Exodus International petition reached 150,000 before Apple acted. Are they raising the ante? Will the next petitioner need a million signatures? The reasoning of Apple is entirely opaque, as a private firm has a right to, well, privacy concerning its internal workings. But this is a profoundly undemocratic way to decide policies that affect millions of people.
Many observers, including yours truly, see Apple’s move as a politically tinged cave-in to a particular special interest group with which the company is at least on friendly terms. It shows that, at least where Apple is concerned, all you have to do to suppress free speech is to get some thousands of people to say they want Apple to do their bidding, and if Apple happens to agree, they get their wish. I can hardly wait to see what they get rid of next.
Sources: The blogosphere resounded with comments on this episode for a week or so. The reasoned Daily Kos comments can be read at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/03/23/959459/-Goodbye-Exodus,-International-iPhone-app. The Exodus International website is at http://exodusinternational.org/, and the Manhattan Declaration can be read at http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/. By the way, the Manhattan Declaration itself has over 487,000 signatures.