An interesting article by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times entitled “Clearing out the app stores: government censorship made easier” exposes the recent withdrawal of the LinkedIn app in Russia and the removal of The New York Times app by the Chinese government, seeing them as a dangerous trend: the centralization of the web conducted by Apple and Google around its application stores makes it easier for governments to exercise censorship and control the flow of Information on the web.
The internet was born as a fully functioning distribution network, one that could continue to work even though parts of it were not operative, because the protocol could redirect packets through other routes to their destination. App stores have played a key role in the adoption and popularization cycle of the internet on smartphones and this has been fundamental in developing countries. But at the same time, competition has resulted in a duopoly that is very easy to control.
Attempts to control the internet by governments are nothing new: the Chinese government has for years devoted itself to creating systems that combine technology and social control, and Russia is not far behind. That said, it is very difficult to consolidate completely — anybody interested enough and with the right tools can always access the information they want. But it is easier within the mobile ecosystem, because all governments have to do is to pressure or legally require Apple or Google to remove an app from the App Store or Play Market. Of course, people can try to access LinkedIn or the New York Times via the internet, or could even download and install the app without going through the app store, but these require skills that are usually beyond the average user.
In many ways, the internet we knew where there were virtually no places to exercise control has evolved to become an environment in which it is enough to strangle a couple of points, pressuring a company or blocking a resource to achieve the goal of eliminating its availability for the majority of users in a country. For companies obliged to respect the laws of each country and the legislative decisions of their governments, decisions they can appeal against, but in certain political environments, this can generate significant risks, from direct reprisals against executives to blocking access to an entire app store. For a company like Apple in China or Google in Russia, immersed in major competitive battles, the idea of not being available and therefore making the terminals of your system practically useless is frightening enough to not appealing against these decisions, thereby accept blockages as part of the cost of doing business in that country. Basically, it is as simple as accepting that many governments still consider that they have the duty, the obligation or the ability to control information, products or services to which their citizens may have access, even if, at least in theory, we live in an information age that does not understand physical boundaries.
Reading two books that at the time I had the opportunity to prologue in their Spanish editions, “Consent of the networked” and “Cypherpunks” can help to understand many elements of this trend. In many ways, the popularization and growth of the web has been at the cost of progressive centralization. It is essential to understand what we have lost and what we could lose if the trend continues.
(En español, aquí)