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July 18-24, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

iPhone Politics

By Annalee Newitz

THE MARKETING MAESTROS at Apple have turned the iPhone into the summer's biggest consumer electronics blockbuster, and they didn't even have to pay Michael Bay millions of bucks to write robot-piss jokes to do it. Everybody's talking about the damn things—of course the usual gizmo-obsessed pubs like Wired and PC Magazine are drooling all over it, but some unexpectedly political critics and fans have gotten into the mix.

The tech community made its annoyance at iPhone boosterism felt when hacker David Maynor announced that he'd found a bug in Safari (the iPhone's web browser) that would allow him to seize control of iPhones remotely. The Daily Show, which usually exhibits a modicum of geek savvy, blithely ignored tech criticisms and led off one episode last week with a breathy noncommentary on how the iPhone is the greatest thing ever.

Then politicians started sounding off. Demos snarked at Republicans last week about the iPhone during a House subcommittee hearing on wireless innovation. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told the committee that the iPhone was the "Hotel California" of mobiles because of an exclusive deal Apple cut with AT&T to provide network service for the multimedia devices. (Apparently Markey's one big pop-culture moment was to listen to the Eagles' famous '70s song about a hotel where "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.")

C|Net commentator Declan McCullagh spoke the latent convictions of many libertarian nerds when he responded to Markey's analogy: "Apple makes the iPhone. It has every right to sell it via only AT&T if it wishes. ... More broadly, Apple has the right to [make] iPhones only available for purchase on the third Monday of the month in even-numbered zip codes if it chooses."

Activist group Free Press responded to ideas like McCullagh's by starting a "free the iPhone" campaign ( designed to spur the FCC and Congress to consider passing regulations that would force vendors like Apple to make mobile phones interoperable with all phone network operators, so that consumers could choose which carrier they want.

Meanwhile, digital freedom lovers have been up in arms over Apple's many closed-door policies for the iPhone. Not only are the damn things locked into using AT&T as a carrier, but iPhones are also designed to prevent users from writing additional software for them. Nothing but Apple-approved software may run on the iPhone.

That means people who want to play music on the iPhone will have the same problems they have with iTunes on the iPod: You can put as much music on the phone as you want, but you can't transfer it off to another device. Nor can you choose a secure browser over Safari or an email program of your choice. Even free-software activist Richard Stallman is pissed about the iPhone, and he's a guy who rarely gives little toys from Apple a second thought.

So what's the big deal? Why do people even want a $600 phone, and why has this luxury device for the pampered techie become such a hot political issue? I think the answer to the first question is easy: The iPhone is the first truly cool convergence phone that combines multimedia with multispectrum goodies like Bluetooth, WiFi and of course a phone network. Who doesn't wish to combine phones, iPods and laptops into one nifty thing?

That's where politics come in. In the United States, we have a long history of government regulations on the phone network, as well as what can plug into the phone network, so naturally the public wonders what the government is going to do with the iPhone, especially when other components of the iPhone, such as its ability to play music, touch on another government-regulated area: copyright law.

And then there's another issue that few people have commented on, which is that Apple's chosen carrier for the iPhone, AT&T, has a history of letting the government spy on its phone networks. So every way you slice it, the iPhone is subject to government.

The iPhone is political because it somehow manages to capture the essence of authoritarianism in its shiny little box. Totally locked down, it runs only preapproved software on a pre-chosen phone network that is subject to government surveillance. Long live the iPhone! Long live democracy!

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks the iPhone's telephone network makes surveillance as fun as iTunes made DRM

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