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Freedom Time: Google Voice Letter to the FCC, iPhone App Store & Mobile Gatekeepers

By Jason Grigsby

Published on September 21st, 2009


Friday is the day to release news you want people to forget. No surprise then that Friday was when Google released the unredacted version of its letter to the FCC about Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application.

In case you missed it, the FCC sent letters to Apple, Google, and AT&T asking them about Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice for iPhone application and what role each company played.

Apple and AT&T released the full content of their responses to the FCC. Google asked for portions of its response to be redacted. However, a Freedom of Information Act request prompted Google to divulge the full content of their response.

And yet despite this latest revelation, the he said, she said nature of the follow ups, and word that Google may even have a screenshot proving that Apple is lying, Google Voice is nowhere near the most important App Store rejection.

That distinction belongs to Freedom Time.

Freedom Application ScreenshotLike many iPhone applications, Freedom Time was a frivolous application. The application displayed a cartoon character of George Bush with arms like a Mickey Mouse watch. But instead of telling time, the application counted down the days until Inauguration Day.

Freedom Time wasn’t one of the more high-profile iPhone App Store rejections. Unlike Google Voice, people barely noticed when the application was rejected.

What is important is the reason why Freedom Time was rejected. Apple’s response to the developer was:

Upon review of your application, Freedom Time cannot be posted to the App Store because it contains content that does not comply with Community Standards. Usage of such materials, as outlined in the iPhone SDK Agreement section 3.3.12, is prohibited:

“Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

Defaming, demeaning, or attacking political figures is not considered appropriate content for the App Store.

Can you imagine political discourse of any significance that doesn’t include demeaning or attacking political figures? Like it or not, that’s part of the exchange of ideas that form a democracy.

This policy essentially bans any editorial cartoons—cartoons that have been part of America’s history since its inception.

The idea that political discourse might be rejected from the App Store as a matter of policy surely must be a mistake, right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t a mistake. The developer of Freedom Time emailed Steve Jobs, and he actually got a reply. Steve wrote:

Even though my personal political leanings are democratic, I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers. What’s the point?


I’ve often wondered what the Steve Jobs who attended Reed College during the early days of the Watergate scandal would think of that quote.

These four people—two that I admire and two that broke our trust—have become linked in my mind because of the Freedom Time rejection.

Freedom of speech is easy to defend when the speech is popular, but the real test comes when you have to defend unpopular speech or things that you don’t agree with.

In Fall 2008, George Bush had the worst approval ratings since Nixon. At a time in which we had one of the most unpopular Presidents in American history, Apple didn’t have the courage to approve a simple, stupid application like Freedom Time.

What is the likelihood that Apple would approve a truly controversial and unpopular application during a time when popular opinion makes it difficult to stand up for what’s right?

I find myself wondering what would have happened if former marine and U.N. Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter had tried to release an application in 2002 talking about how there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

When Ritter did speak up in 2002 and told the world that he had been in Iraq and that there were no weapons of mass destruction, popular opinion was so high in favor of Bush policies that despite being known as a patriot, conservative, and a hawk, Ritter was called a traitor by some.

What if the only means Scott Ritter had to share what he knew with the rest of the world had been through an App Store?

Censored Obama imageRecently Flickr received a lot of scrutiny and pressure because of perceived censorship of a political image. The image showed a modified version of Obama on the cover of Time Magazine where Obama was made to look like the Joker from the most recent Batman movie.

Yahoo, the parent company for Flickr, later explained that they removed the image from Flickr because they had received a copyright infringement claim.

I don’t care to debate the Flickr censorship case. Instead, I want to ask simply why Flickr got a lot of grief for censoring a single image that they say they removed because of a copyright claim, but Apple has thus far escaped scrutiny for a standing policy that rejects any applications that attack political figures.

The image that Flickr removed would have never made it through the iPhone app review process in the first place.

Apple has good reasons for why it has an App Store review process. It told the FCC that:

We created an approval process that reviews every application submitted to Apple for the App Store in order to protect consumer privacy, safeguard children from inappropriate content, and avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone.

This is a very similar argument that carriers and handset manufacturers have been making for years now. The argument is that mobile phones contain so much personal, sensitive information that applications need to be vetted to ensure that consumers are protected.

This is the same argument that Ben Franklin famously warned us about when he said:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

And despite the fact that we would not accept similar arguments from our government, we seem willing to give up our freedoms to mobile companies for the sake of our own security.

While I’ve spent most of my time focusing on Apple, please don’t mistake this as a tirade against Apple. Apple just happens to be leading the way in this area of mobile as well.

The reality is that if mobile is going to live up to its promise, we need a future without gatekeepers.

It isn’t hard to conceive of a future where more people have smartphones than have PCs. In some countries, people get more news from their mobile phones than they do from their desktop computers.

Before we get to the point where mobile phones have become the primary way that people get their news and information, we need to ensure that we have the freedom to publish what we want without restrictions.

For these reasons, I’m encouraged by the work of organizations like the Open Mobile Consortium. They are tackling the difficult work of providing truly open mobile solutions that allow people in repressive regimes to communicate freely.

In addition to the Open Mobile Consortium, we need to make sure that there are alternatives to app stores and their gatekeepers. The best alternative is web technology.

This is why I’ve gone from thinking about mobile web technology as a smart business decision for some applications to thinking of it as a moral imperative.

Even if you are an Objective-C programmer who has had a lot of success on the iPhone App Store, it is in your best interest that the mobile web develop into a viable alternative to app stores. It is in society’s best interest.

To get to that point, we need to solve the short-coming of the mobile web. We need the technology to stabilize. We need real browsers on all phones. And we need a reliable and easy way to accept payment for our mobile web applications and services.

I cannot state this strongly enough: we need an open and free mobile web to be a viable alternative to the mobile gatekeepers to ensure that we have the freedom to say what must be said and the ability to have our voices heard by others.


Markalop said:

Great post Jason. I finished reading thinking that the Internet grew out of the Universities. Of course also the DOD, but the Universities' culture of free speech and willingness to allow the open communication of ideas must have played a key role int he "information wants to be free" culture of early Net users, information publishers and service providers. The Mobile Web, by contrast is "owned" by the mobile service providers, or at least they have the perception that they OWN the network and therefore must be accountable for the information that flows across his network, an attitude that invariably leads to litigation-averse vetting. This commercially-driven structure that we're all forced to live with, in order to access the mobile web, is liable to be the biggest hurdle in bringing the mobile web as you envision it, to the mass market. Early adopters, readers of this blog, "tech people" know that there are ways to circumvent 'Big Brother' controlled mobile experiences, even if we don't take advantage of them. The rest of the consumers? Can the mobile web as you envision it even form without the market being there? Or will the presence of the mobile web attract enough consumers to make it real, and not just an alternative for nerds and anti-business types? I certainly don't know – but that's what I'm thinking about after reading this post. Thanks for posting.

Replies to Markalop

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) replied:

I'm very interested to find out how the Net Neutrality principles that FCC Chairman Genachowski* proposed today may impact mobile web. I think you are right that we perceive desktop Internet as being something that should not be restricted, but tend to think that the carriers own their networks and should be able to do with them as they please.

I am actually less worried about carrier constraints on the mobile web than I am on having the mobile web mature into something that provides the tools we need to build applications and businesses around. But I'm happy to see the FCC taking on the issue.

Thanks for commenting.

* In the interest of full disclosure, Julius Genachowski championed the creation of an iPhone application for the Obama campaign. I have never met him personally, but would likely have not had the opportunity to work on the Obama iPhone app without his advocacy for the project.

Jason Grigsby (Article Author ) said:

From some of my email correspondence, I think there may be some confusion about why I talked about the Open Mobile Consortium.

My point wasn't that we need entirely open source phones. I'm a freedom of speech advocate, not necessarily an open source advocate. I don't care that my iPhone has a closed operating system as long as I have the freedom to do what I want on the phone. Some will argue that the open source is the only way to get that, but I feel fine with the balance struck in Mac OS X between open source and proprietary software.

I find Open Mobile Consortium interesting because it is an example of how in other countries we need to mobile solutions simply to ensure that people have freedom of speech, but in the United States we're quick to hand that right that others are fighting for over for the expediency of the App Store and its goodies.

I hope the Open Mobile Consortium is successful, but I doubt I will ever own one of the phones that they produce.