Noam Cohen writes in the New York Times that companies routinely compromise freedom for market share. According to Noam, the result of this trade-off begs us to ask whether new technologies — the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the all-powerful smartphone — will help set us free or merely give us that illusion. For every time that technology promises to help introduce democracy, the people's hopes are dashed. As an example, Noam cites the introduction of the Apple iPhone into Egypt:
"Among international outrages, depriving citizens of personalized maps seems far down on the list. Still, that was the condition put on the introduction of Apple's iPhone 3G in Egypt. The government demanded that Apple disable the phone's global-positioning system, arguing that GPS is a military prerogative. The company apparently complied, most likely taking a cue from the telecom companies that sell the phone there... as Apple negotiates the introduction of the iPhone to China... there has been talk about modifying the phone so as not to use the 3G network or offer Wi-Fi capability."
One cannot deny that GPS can reveal the location of military installations, so precaution needs to be taken. But GPS is also effective for organizing efforts, as the WTO protests proved in Seattle in 1999. Is it any surprise that the Egyptian government's request and Apple's compliance comes in the context of Egyptian authorities shutting down a movement for political reform in that country, which was organized via Facebook and that resulted in the jailing of many of the movement's organizers? But Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights program of Human Rights Watch, places the issue in a larger context. From Noam's article:
"First, [Arvind] described freedom of information as part of the broader, better known, freedom of expression. Transparency about the government's budget, for example, can be crucial to eliminating corruption and instituting democratic reforms. And second, he argued that it was important for technology companies to set principles and follow them. 'Here is the big question for Apple: Is this an ad-hoc approach or is there a fundamental policy, balancing the freedom of expression and information with the demands of the government?'"
Nevertheless, Ahmed Gabr -- an Egyptian blogger at GadgetsArabia.com -- argues that the Egyptian government is using a faulty rationale in the name of security. He wrote with a self satisfied smiley-face that:
"From a technical point of view, this is totally pointless because Google Maps works flawlessly here — you can even get a clear snap (with accurate coordinates) of places you're not supposed to see... bought an American iPhone 3G via eBay... Cheaper, earlier and without compromise..."
Noam concludes that:
"It is easy to get swept up in the utopianism embedded in new technologies. That we will be more politically engaged because of the organizing and fund-raising tools of social networking; that we will think greater thoughts now that anyone can have access to nearly everything ever written; that our tribal hatreds will melt away as the world recognizes that we genuinely are all connected.... [But] Technologies do not hold people accountable. They give people the tools to hold people accountable."
Finally, Noam notes that while technology changes (e.g., paper vs. Internet) people's behaviors do not, whether in their demands for freedom or in the desire of some to prevent freedom from flourishing.