Hard News by Russell Brown


The not-so-Evil Empire

I tried to comment on Chris Barton's Herald column Is Apple becoming an evil empire? yesterday, I really did. I even actually wrote a comment, but when I tried to post it in two different browsers on my Apple computer, the javascript choked and I couldn't. Clearly, this was a conspiracy.

Well, no actually: it wasn't. No less an authority than Matthew Dentith confirmed that for me. But I do nonetheless feel bound to comment on the column. I have great regard for Chris -- I think he's one of the best, most intellectually able newspaper journalists we have. But his column is all kinds of wrong.

Chris tells the story of Brian, the little guy who stood up against the behemoth. Brian bought an iPad from The Warehouse at a Boxing Day sale.

In order for a new iPad or iPhone to work, it must first be activated over the internet, which requires the owner to have or obtain an Apple ID. Which requires the acceptance of terms and conditions, described by Chris as "the price one pays to be cool." Brian -- and good on him -- is the rare individual who actually reads T&Cs before ticking the box.

But around April, with app updates piling up, Brian discovered that Apple's terms had changed. And he didn't like the new ones.

The change he objected to was that Apple now wanted to automatically start debiting his credit card for downloaded items such as magazines that seem to be free, but turn out to be free only for a trial period. Brian didn't want to agree to that. He thought it was a sneaky way to get the unsuspecting to pay up for a subscription without realising it and put far too much burden on the user to cancel the subscription. In his view the terms and conditions didn't meet New Zealand's consumer law requirements for openness and honesty. It certainly didn't give the user time to correct making a genuine mistake in downloading an app or service by accident.

Brian was unwilling to commit to his credit card being debited to the sum of purchases he had made in the iTunes Store. There might perhaps be a point in there had an editorial app tricked him into taking out subscription. But that hadn't happened to Brian. Although he had downloaded free magazine apps, he is "a careful user". But such accidents must "inevitably occur".

I suppose so. I can't comment on the trickiness of such apps, which are usually free to download and have a play with. I've tried out a few, but the only sub I have via iTunes is to the the New Yorker, which (thanks to a change in the way the store handles subs) comes free with my print sub. It's bloody brilliant.

Anyway ...

To cut a long story short, Brian didn't agree to the new terms - because he disagreed in principle about allowing his credit card to be automatically debited in this way. It wasn't long before various applications on his iPad stopped working and soon, when the operating system had an update, it stopped working all together. Brian couldn't get the updates because he hadn't agreed to the terms and conditions.

Um, really? If you don't update apps on your iDevice, they don't stop working. They're just not as cool. The same goes, as far as I'm aware, for the operating system itself.

Obtaining an ID wasn't an issue for me, because I've had one for years -- although Apple's recent nag for me to strengthen my password took a little thinking through. But it is perfectly possible to obtain an ID without providing a card number -- you just can't buy anything. I managed to set up a US iTunes account on that basis (so I could get the Guardian app during its free period); and when my business Mastercard accidentally topped out a couple of months ago Apple wouldn't let me buy anything until I provided a new card or waited till it was cleared on the 20th. Free updates weren't a problem.

Moving on ...

There has also been lengthy correspondence with various Apple helpdesk persons - on one occasion with Apple insisting Brian had made purchases from iTunes but hadn't paid for them. Apple has since admitted that's not the case.

Well, that is poor.

Brian has also provided detailed information about what apps he used, pointing out that for a while he had used the free Angry Birds game - until he read the terms and conditions and promptly deleted the game. "I didn't agree with the fact that they could access my location and identify who I am calling."

No. Apple cannot identify who you are calling. What it does -- or did -- do is collect information about nearby cell towers and wi-fi sources so it can maintain its own location database, to support services like traffic reports, instead of obtaining the information from Google, as it used to. But only if you have Location Services turned on in your Settings menu. Android phones do  the same thing.

After the controversy over this erupted in April 2011, Apple changed the way the data was stored, reducing the window of the location cache to a week, preventing the cache being synced to the user's computer (where it might be more easily accessed), and deleting the entire cache when the iPhone’s location services are deactivated.

But Brian doesn't have an iPhone, he has an iPad. And, judging by the price he paid, an iPad that does not have 3G capacity. So it not only could not tell who he was calling, but was not capable of collecting location data by the means described.

And, more to the point, Angry Birds cannot tell who you are calling on your phone. It really, really can't. Especially when you don't actually own a phone on which Angry Birds is installed.

UPDATE: I am wrong about Angry Birds. On whatever platform it runs (ie: not just just Apple but Android too), it demands access to location data and who the user is calling. But it's not the worst: Flickr has access to location data, text messages, contacts, who the user is calling, and the camera. And Shazam has the same access as Angry Birds. Facebook and Yahoo? Don't even ask. This is evil. (But the point about it not being able to get that access if it's not installed on an actual phone stands.)

UPDATE 2: A couple of readers have cast serious doubt on the Angry Birds claims, and on the access that third-party apps really have to calling records. 

I do have to feel sorry for the call centre staff Brian has been badgering about this.

Apple can be a pain to deal with if things do go really wrong with the device you buy. A friend of mine had to be quite persistent about getting a faulty Macbook replaced rather than fixed again. But the fact that it holds your payment information is central to the ease of use of the service. Apple didn't invent this model -- it actually pays a royalty to Amazon to use it, on the basis of the OneClick patent. Amazon goes a bit further -- it can reach right into your Kindle and erase a book if it wants to.

It may be that the difficulty in repudiating a purchase once it is made is in conflict with local consumer law -- that's an interesting issue. But, like Brian, I have never had this happen to me. I do appreciate that Apple refuses to provide my personal information to publishers who sell through the iTunes Store. I also appreciate that I am not at risk of downloading malware via the iTunes Store, given that hundreds of thousands of people have had their phones compromised by malware they downloaded from the Android Market. (Google can squash these apps when it becomes aware of them by reaching into your phone and turning them off, fortunately.)

This hasn't stopped hordes of haters piling in on comments for the column, some of them apparently clinically paranoid:

All apps are evil. No matter who you download them through. They are designed to send personal information home so that the relevant companies can target you with advertising. All apps can access you phone/text messages and send them back to the mother ship.

They are capable of opening your dialer. They send wads of surfing information home. I try to run no apps what so ever because of this. This is called Smart technology for one reason. It is clever at generating revenue for its parent company.

Well, yes. If you believe that "all apps are evil" it is probably best not to use any of them. Better yet, avoid telecommunications technology altogether and just shout at people.

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