What brand of freedom would you like?

Apple's restrictions and Google's openness have more in common than you might think.

There’s been a ton of criticism, including from me, over Apple’s restrictions on the App Store. How it restricts the freedom of developers by blocking applications users definitely want to use, or yanking apps that fail to meet a changeable standard of appropriateness or legitimacy. I originally thought I would never buy an iPhone because of that policy alone, and I felt like quite a hypocrite when I decided to buy one anyway. As many people have pointed out, the iPad, if successful, will further extend Apple’s control over the code its users are able to run.

iPad CoverageOne of the main pitches for Google’s Android platform, in contrast, is that it is more open, freer, more consistent with the principles that the open source world (and this blog, and I) espouse. For the code, and applications running on it, that certainly seems to be true. I can go to source.android.com and download the Android source. The Apache license applied to most of the project is very liberal in the use of that code. As a developer, I can publish applications for Android at www.android.com/market, where, Google says, “developers have complete control over when and how they make their applications available to users.” How much more free could you get and still call it a platform? The Android stance is nearly 180 degrees from the iPhone’s. One is free and the other is closed.

And yet, I don’t think the contrast is as clear as that. Freedom means different things to different people. Hence Richard Stallman’s quip, “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.” While there’s no question the code is much more free on Android, I think Steven Levy’s point in his piece on the iPad is worth repeating:

While Apple wants to move computing to a curated environment where everything adheres to a carefully honed interface, Google believes that the operating system should be nearly invisible. Good-bye to files, client apps, and onboard storage — Chrome OS channels users directly into the cloud …

Funneling users to the cloud means storing their data for them, on Google-owned and controlled servers. And Google is at least as restrictive about the data on its servers as Apple is about the apps in its App Store — maybe, I think almost certainly, a lot more restrictive.

Google has long taken the stance that users should trust it with their data (famously enshrined in the company’s “don’t be evil” motto). And indeed, Google has taken stances I believe are favorable to users’ interests, including fending off subpoenas from the U.S. government for search data when other search companies did not, and, last week, advocating for better privacy laws (meaning, privacy of Google’s data from government demands).

Google often seem to take those admirable stances, though, when users’ privacy interests coincide with Google’s business interests. When they don’t, Google sometimes argues for its business interests above users’ privacy interests. For instance, see Google’s arguments for the benefits of log retention, which as the AOL search data case showed, can certainly be harmful to users’ interests. In these cases, the protections — that is, the freedom offered by Google — is limited to “trust us.”

I’m not just spouting off, here. At my company, we promise users what we call the “Data Bill of Rights,” which states in very plain language the control our users retain over their data. We also recently released an open source server framework that helps “cloud” applications responsibly store user data. If Google wanted to make promises to users about data that were as strong as the freedoms it offers around the Android code, it could, and it doesn’t.

I have no hard evidence that Google is untrustworthy with my data, but nor do I believe that the emailed report I got from my doctor’s office in my Gmail account was completely removed when I hit “delete.” I’ve had conversations with Google engineers that have creeped me out to no end and made me reluctant to use its services, as good as they are, and I feel like quite a hypocrite when I decide to do so anyway. Likewise, I have no hard evidence that Apple wields its control any more or less responsibly than Google does.

I disagree with calls both companies have made with their respective points of control, but in general I believe both are trying to create fantastic products in a responsible way. And the guarantee I have that that is true for either company? None. Apple can and occasionally does abuse its control over the App Store to further its business interests Google can and occasionally does abuse its control over hosted data to further its business interests.

What brand of freedom do you prefer? I find myself undecided. I don’t like either brand, since neither really seems free to me. I’m sure, though, that saying Apple is an overly restrictive platform and Google/Android is a free and clear platform is a false dichotomy.

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