Technology has been hailed for its part in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and around the Middle East. An Egyptian man named his daughter “Facebook” for the social media site’s role in spreading the word, locally and globally, about the uprising that brought down the 30-year-regime of now ousted President Hosni Mubarak. What magnetized the world were not only reports of thousands gathering in Tahrir Square, but images and video of the events sometimes minutes after they happened.
But all this could change if a patent filed by Apple eighteen months ago is approved. The Daily Mail reports that, according to the patent application, the software could sense when someone is trying to photography or videotape a live event and then switch off your camera. Simply holding up your iPhone could trigger an infrared sensor installed at a venue like a concert — or installed in a public meeting place or on a police helmet, as Timothy Karr points out in the Huffington Post.
The Daily Mail notes that, while also potentially delighting development concertgoers “fed up with their view being blocked by a sea of glowing mobile phone screens,” the real guns behind the new technology are broadcasters whom Apple seeks to “placate” as they are “upset that members of the public are posting footage of events on websites including YouTube when they have bought the exclusive rights.” But the technology for this “remote kill switch” is far more sinister in a Big Brother-ish kind of way, as Karr describes:
Thousands of people across the Middle East and North Africa have used cellphone cameras to document human rights abuses and share them with millions via social media.
In a February speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton credited the viral spread of a cellphone video depicting the shooting death of a young Iranian woman named Neda for bringing world attention to the human rights abuses of the regime.
Just as troubling, as Karr writes, is the fact that the First Amendment and Article 19 of the U.N.’s Declaration on Human Rights don’t really apply to the corporations that run social media and cell networks like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. They provide a platform but they can take that away:
The social networks are only beholden to their terms of service, which in most cases extend them the power to take down your communications “for any or no reason.”
That’s why Flickr got away with taking down the photographs and files of Egyptian security officers, which were posted by a local activist wanting to draw attention to their crimes. That’s why Amazon.com could kick Wikileaks off its hosting platform after Wikileaks released a series of diplomatic cables that exposed abuses by American agents. And that’s why Facebook could shut down the pages of any anonymous political protester who decides to use the network to build a community of like-minded activists.
“Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not,” writes Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center.
Facebook, YouTube and the like are more akin to “benevolent despots” than “representative governments,” as Zuckerman points out. These sites are not quite as “free” as they seem to be. Or, put another way, because they are free, the “powers that administer them” can take them down or set whatever limits and rules on them they wish.
What if other — what if all — makers of mobile phones and devices followed Apple’s lead with such technology? Do broadcasters wanting to protect their rights for recording concerts and other events realize their efforts could have a drastic effect on political movements, on freedom of speech, on human rights protests, all over the world? Does Apple want to be behind the “kill switch” on voices of freedom and calls for human rights around the world?
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