Apple and the free flow of information

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By Dan Kennedy, assistant professor of journalism, Northeastern University

Apple’s way-cool new consumer toy, the iPad, has been touted as a possible savior for the struggling news business — a chance to persuade people to pay for a better-than-print, better-than-the-Web experience.

But Apple’s closed-box approach with its new-generation devices may turn out to be more of a burden than any self-respecting news organization should live with. Unlike Apple’s Macintosh computers (and other personal computers), the iPad — as well as the iPhone and the iPod touch, which use the same operating system — won’t run any apps that haven’t been approved by Steve Jobs and company.

That control-freakish attitude merely raised eyebrows when Apple went after Adobe, banning its Flash animation software on the disputed grounds that it’s an unstable memory hog. Last week, though, the stakes were raised considerably when newly minted Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore revealed that Apple had banned an app he submitted last December.

The reason? It seems that the terms of service for Apple’s iTunes Store does not permit content that “ridicules public figures.” Never mind that that’s pretty much the entire job description for a political cartoonist.

Apple backed down in Fiore’s case. But company officials have not backed down from the assertion that they and they alone have the right to determine what apps may be installed on the iPad and similar devices.

It’s an outrageous stance for a company that is trying to cut deals with news organizations. Media activist and author Dan Gillmor has demanded that news orgs — most of which have been unquestioningly rapturous in their coverage of the iPad — reveal whether they have signed agreements that gives Apple the right to approve or disapprove of their content. So far, none has given Gillmor an answer.

What Apple is doing may not be censorship — only the government has that power, and Apple’s customers are free to take their business elsewhere. But as news organizations hand over control to Apple and other companies whose corporate goals may not include the free flow of information, they ought to consider what they’re giving up.

At least the paper companies never demanded to know what their product would be used for.

For a fuller discussion of this, please see my commentary in the Guardian, which includes links to the Fiore case, the Flash controversy, Gillmor’s blog and more.

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