Another push for censorship

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Oct 2 2012, 03:06am hrs
It is feared that a new technology Apple is working

on will allow governments to restrict media sharing when it wants to

The ubiquity of camera phones and smartphones has enabled users to do away with multiple devices and instead use their phones for everythingas a camera, music player, social media tool, and of course, a communications device. And, as with everything, consumers have found way to put their devices to unconventional uses. Several incidents have come to the fore of students using their camera phones to cheat during exams, and people have also increasingly started using their phones to pirate movieswith cameras with high levels of clarity, smartphones enable these pirates to surreptitiously record movies in halls and upload them onto the internet. And, perhaps most importantly, phone-enabled social media and recording has been instrumental in allowing movements like the Arab Spring revolts, Occupy, anti-SOPA, Anna Hazares rallies, etc, to garner so much attention and mass support.

A new patent by Apple, however, could possibly put an end to all of this. The patent, for an apparatus and methods for enforcement of policies upon a wireless device, basically comprises a wireless signal sent from a given location that can hinder certain functions on your iPhone. These functions include altering screen brightness, putting the phone on silent mode, disrupting communications with other wireless devices and disabling the phone's recording functions (video, photos, etc).

According to the patent document, this capability is useful for a variety of reasons, including for example to disable noise and/or light emanating from wireless devices (such as at a movie theater), for preventing wireless devices from communicating with other wireless devices (such as in academic settings), and for forcing certain electronic devices to enter sleep mode when entering a sensitive area.

The patent, filed on June 26, 2008, and granted on August 28, 2012, is likely to still take a while before it becomes commercially ready, however. According to Adwaita Govind Menon, associate director & head new products, IDC India, this technology will not be ready for at least 3-4 quarters. But he does say that even this was a ball-park figure, and that it could take even longer.

When it comes out is one question, but another important question is who will use it once it is out It seems to be highly useful for cinema halls to prevent piracy and maintain a disturbance-free movie watching experience, and there is no doubt that if it can be applied to curb cheating during exams, then that makes this technology very valuable. But that is restricted to enterprise users, says Menon. In this day and age, where smartphones are becoming enablers of greater connectivity, what use do consumers have for something that limits it. And, pertinently, normal consumers are by far the majority of Apples market, so who is this new technology aimed at

One answer is that Apple is indeed aiming at only enterprises, which would also include governments. Given the recent spate of anti-government protests in the Arab region and in the US, the fear is that such a device will surely be used to limit how people communicate and share recordings when they enter such sensitive areas. Internet and free-speech activists fear that the technology could put an end to revolts like the Arab Spring ones, which were heavily reliant on communications based on social media and the sharing of videos and photographs. But even here, Menon says that the technology will only play a supplementary role. Governments already have signal jammers that are far more powerful than this technology, so this will only be added to those jammers, it will not replace them, he says.

At present, being an Apple patent, it is likely to be aimed at Apple products, but, asMenon says, it will move to Android, Symbian and other operating systems faster than you think. So what is the end result It seems a mixed bag. While the technology is likely to find lots of takers among private companies, schools and governments, it has limited uses for the common consumer. And while it has several favourable uses like stopping cheating, piracy and those pesky, loud ringtones in movie halls, any app that curbs the spread of information is not to be taken lightly.