What’s the impact of Apple’s new Uber-product, the iPad? There’s tons of discussion on the web, mostly focusing on the limited geek-appeal of the new device. It’s true, all these complaints tell us nothing about the still likely success of the iPad. But they show how fundamentally Apple has changed in the last decade. While Steve Jobs was still boasting his company’s reputation among creative customers on last week’s keynote, it seems now more obvious than ever that Apple has become an appliance company targeting Joe Sixpack (and his Mom). While Apple’s products were once bought because they seemed technically superior, they are now bought by the middle classes around the world because they are universally recognized status symbols.
Steve Jobs has essentially turned Apple into a global luxury electronics brand, much like Sony was in the 1980s. This strategy may seem risky on first glance, since for creative elitists Apple products are more and more loosing their distinguishing appeal. Using an Apple product is not so much saying “I’m better, I’m in” anymore, but rather “I can spend more money than you”. For Apple’s shareholders of course, this turn from underdog to market leader has very well paid out.
More remarkable are the side effects of this development. As Jobs pointed out, Apple sees itself no longer as a cutting edge computer design house but as selling portable devices which function as internet outlets for all kinds of media stores. This means that, thanks to Apple, people don’t need to bother with a computer anymore when they want to enjoy the internet. To be sure, Apple always tried to build devices where the user could feel as without actually being a geek. Now that they are selling the iPad to the masses, we are looking at users whose everyday internet experience will mean consumption, not production. Of course, the old powers, publishers, networks, labels will eventually embrace this concept, since it preserves a central role for the media, for the middle-man of communication. Imagine a world where 90% of the people use their iPads to consume internet delivered media like they now use their TV sets to consume old media. Since they are glued to their new sexy internet handsets, they won’t care about DRM or standards or whatever, they only want to read that article or watch that movie or see that picture, right now “that simple”. What about learning the nuts and bolts of the internet, what about actually participating in a global, many-sided communication? Forget it. The new iPad-style internet will belong to Rupert Murdoch and his media buddies. With the iPad Apple may reach the holy grail of internet monetization – with the web as collateral damage.
erman journalist Christian Ströker comments on an interview with Eric Schmidt and comes to the conclusion that Google wants it all. The big program, all of it, “world domination”. He sees an evil strategy behind Google’s innovations and acquisitions to abolish our “civil concept of privacy”. This is not quite the same as the “world domination” mentioned in the headline, but whatever. Ströker’s proof: Schmidt advises us to refrain from activities we fear to become public. Google chronicles all our web journeys plus social data and links them to semi-anonymized IPs. Worse, Google tries to link these web characters to geographical locations (Google Latitude etc). Wow, that’s bad shit, Mr. Ströker.
However Google is your least problem when surfing the web. Your ISP and your mail provider know everything about you by default. Any sys admin at any ISP can read every bit, and I mean bit, of your web traffic 24/7. In Germany, the ISPs are even required by law to record your connections and log them with your full IP address for months. And of course, they are to be given out to the authorities on request – that’s why they are to be collected in the first place. Mail providers could easily read all your mails, including the ones with the user logins and passwords. No matter what mail provider you use.
And what about Schmidt’s privacy statement? Although people don’t seem to get it: everything you do online you do in a public place. And you always did, even before 1996. So, as far as public places go: if you don’t want other people to see something, where you don’t have much chances to hide it, than you best don’t do it, at least not in a public place. Which brings us to Ströker’s very misconception: the internet is not and never was a private place. The moment you log on, you’re leaving your home and go out on (a very crowded) street. There are of course tools which allow you to hide at least some things (everyone should use PGP in their private correspondence for that matter) – however, as long as some bits crawl some line it’s not that much different from walking on a public street.
Our real problem is not some alleged corporate conspiracy against privacy but political attempts to censor and govern the raw traffic at the heart of the consumer internet: the ISPs’ servers. If people want to give up their privacy to Google, that’s fine, or at least it’s their right to do so. But this agreement has only two parties: them and Google. There’s no place for governments in this. Of course, Google might decide to cooperate with law enforcement agencies against their customers. But again, this is nothing new, but something ISPs all over the world (have to) do on a daily basis. The real problem is not Google, but third party access to your web traffic on behalf of the public good. Consider the following analogy: if I decide to open all my private letters to some private corporation who promises me, say, lightning fast mailing service, then you need not like my decision, but it’s legitimate nevertheless. In fact, this is what happened when people started to use private telegraphy services in the 19th century. It happened again when people bought internet access from private ISPs. It is a complete different matter, though, when a third party requires a copy of every letter sent over the wire. Yet, this is not a problem of the contract in itself. It’s a problem of wrong government priorities.
It’s getting worse everyday now. Cory Doctorow reported and commented on new restrictions on internet use which are about to become law in the UK. The proposal has the usual ingrediences: extended control over ISPs serving private interests, draconic sanctions against copyright infringement, and forcing users off the net. First France, now Britain, who will be next? Western nations are obviously under enormous pressure from the content industry to end the so-called “misuse” of the internet.
This whole crusade against file-sharing is way more dangerous than it might seem. It is not only successful lobbying on behalf of the content industry. And it is not only about cutting off some cheap kids from their music supply. Old media, content industry and politics might find a common interest to change the nature of the internet forever. The old powers have reason to turn the internet into something like TV: a malleable means to distribute products and channel approved information.
The content industry used mass media to sell their products, politicians used them to control the masses – and the old media gained power and wealth from both ends. However, the internet changed the rules of the game because it allowed individual communication on a massive and global scale. Precisely its peer-to-peer nature established a public infrastructure which could not as easily be twisted and influenced as the old media in the TV age. In terms of peer-to-peer communication every client is equal – and every voice and opinion may be heard unfiltered. No need for mediation nor content salesmen, no easy access for politicians to the public opinion. In our new age people can exchange digital goods and analog ideas without direction and control of the establishment. This is why content industry, TV-age media and old-school politicians all have a very good reason to hate the internet in its present form. And this is what worries me most in the power struggle that lies ahead. Sure, private broadband connections will survive, we will still have packet-based protocols – but what if all people may use it for is buying TV streams from established outlets as everything else is effectively outlawed? Would you still call that “internet”?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation just announced a new collaborative effort to collect and make transparent international copyright laws and related acts. We do need public awareness for these issues now more than ever as horrifying details about the ACTA conspiracy against intellectual progress had leaked some days ago. The global scale of the content industry’s attack on freedom is truly astonishing. This dying industry and their proponents seem to be willing to drag the whole western society and culture into their grave.
The EFF’s project is a first important step in the right direction: we need to know the nature and range of the attack. However, we do also need to know the names of the proponents. Which corporations are behind this conspiracy? Which lobbyists are mind-twisting our elected officials? They need to get the spotlight.