Apple's Pre-emptive Strike Against Free Speech

So you think you control your smartphone? Think again.

Late last week reports uncovered a plan by Apple, manufacturer of the iPhone, to patent technology that can detect when people are using their phone cameras and shut them down.

Apple says this technology was intended to stop people from recording video at live concerts, which should worry the creative commons crowd. But a remote "kill switch" has far more sinister applications in the hands of repressive governments. And it further raises concerns about the power new media companies hold over our right to connect and communicate.

Imagine if Apple's device had been available to the Mubarak regime earlier this year, and Egyptian security forces had deployed it around Tahrir Square to disable cameras just before they sent in their thugs to disperse the crowd.

Would the global outcry that helped drive Mubarak from office have occurred if a blackout of protest videos had prevented us from viewing the crackdown?

What would we know of Neda had it not been for one witness holding up a cellphone?

This is more than speculation. 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.

What would we know of Neda's shocking death had Iranian security forces disabled that camera?

Social Media's Wild West

But here's the rub. The First Amendment and Article 19 of the U.N.'s Declaration on Human Rights don't really apply to the corporations that build these cellphones and run these social networks. Free speech rules don't apply to Silicon Valley.

And while platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr might enable individual expression more than governments do, many governments are at least accountable by law for protecting your right to speech and assembly.

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 could kick Wikileaks off its hosting platform after it released a series of diplomatic cables that exposed abuses of power 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.

Rochester: Where using a cellphone camera will get you arrested

"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.

"Even if YouTube's rulers take their function as a free speech platform seriously and work to ensure you've got rights to post content, they're a benevolent despot, not a representative government."

A Pre-emptive Strike

What Apple is proposing to develop is worse in many ways. Its cellphone camera kill switch can be used as a pre-emptive strike against free speech.

In its patent application, Apple describes the technology as making it impossible to capture video or pictures at events where cameras and video recorders are prohibited. Your phone determines whether an image includes an infrared beam with encoded data. This data is sent from an emitter that directs the cellphone or a similar device to shut down image capture. Disabling emitters could be mounted on stages, throughout public squares or, conceivably, on police helmets.

While the technology might not be available now, the grave consequences of its use far outweigh any worry Apple and its entertainment industry allies have about video piracy.

More than ten thousand people have already signed a letter imploring Apple CEO Steve Jobs to pull the plug on this technology.

Smartphones like the iPhone and Droid are becoming extensions of ourselves. They are not simply tools to connect with friends and family, but a means to document the world around us, engage in political issues and organize with others. They literally put the power of the media in our own hands.

Apple's proposed technology would take that power away.