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Privacy, Power, Permanence & Politics!

One of the reasons I’ve been so quiet is that in the past few weeks I’ve started teaching two new units here at Curtin. Both of these units have been completely redeveloped and this is their first run in the new form. I’ll talk about Web Communications 101 another day, but I wanted to point out how much I’m enjoying teaching our new Internet Politics and Power unit. The unit has a healthy dose of thinking from people like Lessig and Zittrain and really tackles many of the big issues for digital culture today. So I’m now required to stay on top of many of those issues I like to blog about, like privacy and copyright, rather than having to steal a hour here or there! 🙂 There are so many issues that are relevant today, but one area which is really getting me thinking is the way that Apple, Google, Facebook and others are creating their own bounded realms of control!

A recent example that really highlights the complexity of these issues is the policing of Apple’s application store for the iPhone. Recently there was a a fairly heated discussion after Apple rejected the Ninjawords: iPhone Dictionary application ostensibly for offensive words (but words which are present in many other apps). It turns out Apple had more complex reasoning which was, among other things, wrapped up with new parental controls being introduced for apps. While this rationale is less bizzare, John Gruber still makes the very important point that the biggest issue is there needs to be "fairness, consistency, and common sense in the App Store review process" and that consistency is, thus far, sorely lacking.

Apple’s app store has also been under fire for rejecting a Google app which would allow many users to access cheaper calls and services. Elisabeth Oppenheimer, writing at Zittrain’s Future of the Internet blog, notes that Apple claimed that they rejected Google’s app since it "duplicates iPhone functionality" but in real terms many people suspect it was rejected since it threatened the monopoly AT&T have enjoyed in being the exclusive iPhone service provider in the US. Oppenheimer is "hopeful that killing Google Voice will be the one step too far that inspires consumers and regulators to sit up and work to get sensible open-access rules" but I’m not necessarily that optimistic.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch is demanding Amazon hand over the details of Kindle users who subscribe to media from Murdoch’s vast empire. So far Amazon has not complied, but I wonder if they’re willing to risk their relationship with Newscorp in the long run? Along similar lines, this week Facebook purchased Friendfeed which potentially adds even more information to Facebook’s vast array of user information that they manage in, at times, curiously questionable ways.

While not quite an app, on another front the permanence of archives has come under threat from another third-party tool. While there have been concerns for a while about URL-shortening services, the upcoming closure of tr.im is the first one that I know of to go under. These services have become extremely popular, allowing people to create tiny web page addresses that can fit alongside a tweet and still fit Twitter’s 140 character limit. However, what will happen to all of the tweets which contain tr.im address? They’ll go dead, effectively making those tweets useless. While tr.im is not really to blame (really, what is the business model for a URL-shortener?), our reliance on these services leaves our tweets and related links fragile and vulnerable when a company or service collapses under the weight of their own popularity. This is less a privacy issue than an issue of utility: relying on third-party tools with no real backup function leaves the usefulness of our personal and collective archives in the hands of folks who, ultimately, may not have the resources to run these services forever!

Update: On the tr.im font there appears to be a happy ending, with the announcement that tr.im is becoming a community-developed open source project.

Update 2: Apple claim that they “did not reject an iPhone application submitted by Google and that it was still studying it, in part because of privacy concerns.”

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