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How big tech makes censorship easier, not harder
Jan 17, 2022
5 minutes read

There’s been a growing focus over the past two years on app stores and the role their facilitators, primarily Apple and Google, play with regards to fees, distribution, and maintenance. While many organizations and governing bodies have put pressure on Apple and Google to clarify and simplify their monetization models for their app stores, I wanted to spend some time talking about censorship and how it relates to Apple and Google’s duopoly on mobile app distribution.

Turbulence on the rocketship launch of the internet

The vision of the internet was to create a decentralized, global network that facilitated the free and open exchange of information.

But near the turn of the century, China started building its Great Firewall (GFW) project with the aim to moderate the internet and establish a philosophy of “internet sovereignty” – the idea that the internet inside a country should be controlled by the country’s government. This idea seemed contrarian to the very name of the “World Wide Web, which was created upon the premise of openness, decentralization, and freedom.

Yet the GFW project trekked on, completing both major phases of development in 2008, just 20 years after it was started in 1998, and just 24 years after the internet arrived in China. The project was complex even by today’s standards, allowing the CAC, or the Cyberspace Administration of China, to perform a variety of filtering including IP range bans, DNS spoofing, and even execute man-in-the-middle attacks with TLS by impersonating any valid TLS certificate. It’s estimated that over 50,000 police officials were involved in building the GFW.

The internet continues to get splintered

Let’s fast forward a bit to the last decade. The internet is no longer the panacea of the open exchange of information it was envisioned to become. In fact, most would characterize the internet as of the last ten years or so as a splinternet – an internet split by sovereign states and entities to serve their national interests and laws.

Other countries such as Russia have followed China’s footsteps and created their own set of laws and tools to passively monitor and actively filter the internet, including creating their own domestic DNS, creating a further divide in what was intended to be a universal, open standard. There are, obviously, benefits to restricting the availability of content on the internet. For example, the US and Australia have been in active discussions to create a firewall to block weapon-making instructions and other such unseemly content’s availability and accessibility on the internet.

The aggregation of internet access through phones and apps

Fast-forwarding to today, the modern internet, for most people, is not through their computers, but rather through their mobile phones. Those phones run operating systems developed either by Google or Apple, a duopoly that’s started to get more scrutiny by the US government and its legislative bodies. And over 90% of the time spent accessing the internet through smartphones in the US occurs through apps, not websites. Those apps are governed by restrictions where they’re listed – on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store.

So let’s recap – in the past few years, the main way people are accessing the internet is through their phones. And this mobile internet usage is largely through apps, not websites. And those apps are controlled by the first and third biggest companies in the world (at the time of publishing this article, Dec 2021). What does this mean for the openness of the internet? Surely putting two Silicon Valley companies created in the liberal state of California in a country that eschews freedom of speech and democracy means that the internet’s fate of openness is safe, right?

Wrong. Enter country-specific app bans

In reality, this consolidation of control has given state governments the ability to quickly and efficiently ban access to applications they find threatening to their national security, political ideologies, or any other reason at their discretion. For example, India famously banned Tik Tok and other Chinese apps from the App Store and Play Store following conflict at the India-China border. Russia forced Apple and Google to ban an app that coordinated protests in favor of the opposition leader, Navalny. How exactly did Russia force these behemoths to remove the app from their stores? By threatening prosecution against their employees based in Russia. And China has been known to ban VPN, religious, and gaming apps on the App Store and Play Store, despite the decades-long investment into their Great Firewall – it’s just easier to compel two companies to ban an app than it is to develop a national, real-time firewall.

The reality – consolidation of distribution makes censorship easier, not harder. The internet was created with the idea of decentralized distribution. Anybody could start a website, and simply removing something from a search engine wouldn’t stop others from accessing it directly. But now that apps are published and distributed by two large entities, censoring something doesn’t require a complex, national firewall – it just requires two phone calls to Apple and Google.

The takeaway

Censorship, by its very nature, isn’t bad. The United States censors websites that facilitate drug enterprises, explicit content of minors, and other criminal content. And Apple and Google aren’t wrong for following the laws and regulations of the countries in which they operate. However, what is more concerning is that we seem to have found ourselves in a situation where the very precepts of the internet are no longer applicable in our day-to-day usage across borders. The splinternet is real, and it’s very much snuck into our daily lives. And we seem to find ourselves in this situation without ever stopping to ask ourselves - are we making the right tradeoffs?

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