Are Apple and Facebook bad for democracy?

Apple and Facebook are asserting themselves as gatekeepers of necessary information to the public. Can we trust them?
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld (US))
  • 05 October, 2015 14:00

We're trying to have a democracy here, and ideally an informed one.

Nowadays, however, almost everyone is too distracted with their smartphones to muster the attention span to put up with reading a newspaper or news magazine delivered by a publisher, or even watching TV news.

Instead, we get news through apps and on social networks. The biggest source of apps in the U.S. and the biggest social network are Apple's App Store and Facebook, respectively.

This trend transfers the job of gatekeeper of what political information reaches the public from publications, editors or news directors to the likes of Apple and Facebook -- the companies that choose, in Apple's case, which apps are allowed and which are banned or, in Facebook's case, which news stories or sources are favored by its secret algorithms.

What that means -- and there's no gentle way to put this, so I'm just going to say it -- is that the people in charge of what voters and citizens know are people motivated by selling tiny computers with "selfie cameras" or ads for tiny computers with "selfie cameras" (Samsung is currently the biggest advertiser on Facebook).

Apple's unsettling censorship

Apple bans lots of apps for lots of reasons. Some for bad taste, and others to stop bullying. But when it comes to information provided as a result of the political process, or information provided to affect the political process, Apple's criteria for censorship are -- well, they're in bad taste and smack of bullying.

Apple last week banned an app called Speed Camera Alert, created by a developer named Charles Yeh. The app alerted users to speed cameras based on location. It was simple in concept: The app took a list of Washington, D.C., area speed cameras published by the police department and entered that legal and public information into a map. When the user came within range of one of the camera locations, the app would pop up an alert and display the driver's current speed.

Apple banned the app because according to Apple, it "contains content or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity that is not legal in all of the locations where the app is available."

Obviously Apple is implying that Speed Camera Alert encourages speeding. But is that Apple's call to make? The local democratic process has determined that the location of speed cameras is to be public knowledge -- thus the published list of locations. The app is just a way to reference that public information safely while driving.

Why should Apple ban an interface to public and legal information based on the outrageous assumption that geo-located access to this data encourages criminal behavior? Maybe the user wants a constant reminder about speed limits in order to always drive within the law. Maybe the user wants to identify the location of speed cameras as a hobby.

There is also an apparent double standard being applied here. Other apps, including and especially the Google-owned Waze app, do something categorically comparable.

Waze is a traffic and navigation app. Users can report the location of various temporary situations of interest to motorists, including road hazards, vehicles on the shoulder and traffic jams.

Waze also facilitates the sharing of locations of police cars. Multiple police departments and organizations have complained about Waze, saying that it encourages attacks on police cars. And still, Apple hasn't banned Waze. (For the record, I don't think Apple should ban either app.)

So why has Apple banned Speed Camera Alert but not Waze? Is it because Google is a big guy and Charles Yeh is a little guy? Is it because Waze does many things and Speed Camera Alert does only a few things?

In another example, Apple last week removed an app called Metadata+. The app exists to report deaths caused by U.S. drone strikes.

Metadata+ was designed by Josh Begley, an editor at The Intercept -- a publication that also employs Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists who brought us the Edward Snowden revelations.

Metadata+ is the latest of several apps that perform a similar function, and each previous one has been banned by Apple.

The data for Metadata+ comes from information legally published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit news organization.

The data isn't illegal. It's not explicitly violent. Apple's reason for the removal is that the app contained "excessively rude or objectionable content."

An informed democracy requires that citizens know what their government is doing in their name, especially in matters of war.

The vagaries of human nature cause the public to care far less about casualties meted out by armed drones than by other means -- essentially giving a free pass to the politicians ordering those strikes, politically speaking.

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Yet the claimed purpose of Metadata+ -- to use smartphones and an app to get people to care about drone strikes (which are paid for with the taxes of would-be users of said app) -- is considered too objectionable to allow.

On what basis can Apple claim that this knowledge is "objectionable," especially given the fact that it would have been downloaded and used by people specifically seeking out that information?

It's also worth pointing out that the App Store allows games that involve the role-playing fantasy of acting as a drone operator and killing people.

Apple recently launched its News app along with iOS 9. So far, the company isn't censoring stories in the News app like it currently censors apps in the App Store.

Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook recently launched an offering to news publishers called Facebook Instant Articles. The system preloads news stories on Facebook's mobile app for participating and invited publishers, rendering stories as much as 10 times faster when users tap to read a story, according to Facebook.

fb instant articles 1 Facebook

Facebook Instant Articles.

The feature is still in test mode, involving just a handful of publishers and 12.5% of iPhone owners who use Facebook's app.

Instant Articles is attractive to publishers, which are losing readers because of time spent on Facebook. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.) It's attractive also because Facebook lets publishers keep all the revenue from the ads they sell, plus 70% of the revenue from ads that Facebook sells against those articles.

Facebook is already used as a news source by about 63% of users, and Instant Articles could dramatically raise that percentage and increase the number of people who get their news exclusively from Facebook.

Google and Twitter are so freaked out about Instant Articles stealing all the news eyeballs that on Wednesday they'll be launching an open-source alternative -- one that has no apparent monetary benefit to either party. (You can tell companies are scared when they partner with rivals to unite against a common third rival.)

Facebook Instant Articles looks to be an extremely effective tactic for moving news reading on smartphones from news apps to Facebook itself. And it threatens to make surfing Facebook the way a majority of voters get their political news.

The implication of this trend is that more news becomes subject to Facebook's secret algorithms, which are constantly optimized to serve Facebook's interests.

Let me say that another way: People vote based on what they know. People know what they read or watch in the news. And what people read or watch is controlled by Facebook's algorithms. Therefore, Facebook's secret algorithms determine the outcome of elections.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

As with all its content, Facebook will display the news that people sign up for to only a tiny minority of those users. Its criteria for selecting which stories to deliver to which News Feeds is unknown.

Once stories are delivered, the degree of "engagement" that they generate will determine whether they die an early social death or go wildly viral -- and potentially have a huge influence. So, of course, the sensational will be seen and re-seen by everyone, and the important news and information vital for an informed democracy may go largely unseen.

These initiatives from Apple and Facebook won't have much of an impact on the public in general. They do, however, raise the question of whether we can trust the new gatekeepers of information flowing to the public -- information that is vital to our democracy.

In general, Apple's and Facebook's criteria for choosing what information the public gets seem arbitrary at best and contrary to the interests of an informed democracy at worst.

The old gatekeepers -- the editors and producers of political news who used to decide what the public would learn about -- had devoted their careers to keeping the democracy informed.

The new gatekeepers just want you to go shopping.

Something to think about.