Antitrust Day: Tech monopolies shouldn't be allowed to control app stores
Today is Antitrust Day, a day of action organized by Fight for the Future, dedicated to mobilizing support for two tech antitrust bills currently on the US Senate floor: the Open App Markets Act (OAMA), and the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA). Though these are two separate bills, their general focus remains the same: preventing large tech corporations from behaviors that that take away people's freedom. Chief among these is the common practice of some devices only allowing one specific app store, or making it very hard to use any app store but one. While much of the conversation around these bills is focused on promoting competition, that is not the key value for us. The key value is freedom, and in this case, the measures being targeted as anti-competitive are also measures that take away user freedom. Removing Apple's ability to block all app repositories but their own on the devices they produce would allow freedom-respecting ones to enter the scene, and provide users of these devices with the first step to their freedom.
We've written previously on the way "bad apples" like Apple and Google take great pains to restrict what users can and can't do with their devices. Platforms like these are skilled at giving users the illusion of autonomy and freedom. There's an app for every need, or so it seems, but there's a sinister reality behind the glossy finish. It's true that the overwhelming majority of these apps are nonfree software, which is overtly malware, but it's less common that users get to see the way corporations like Apple are pulling the strings behind the scenes, driving our use of technology further and further away from being in our control. Apple likes to present the gatekeeping they do as a form of quality assurance. The exact same quality assurance benefits could be had in a world where users had the freedom to to either stay with Apple or go to someone else they trust more to provide the same services without having to change their physical device.
Using legal means to limit the power tech giants like Apple and Google exert over their users isn't a panacea. Even phones configured to run app repositories that provide free "as in freedom" programs and phones that run free operating systems like GNU/Linux are prevented from being usable with exclusively free software by the mobile baseband, the proprietary operating system that handles the device's radio communications. Even so, being able to wholeheartedly recommend small steps that free software beginners take in the right direction would be a tremendous help to software freedom activists, who are often unsure of how to talk about free software with the people they care about, and want to be able to recommend freedom-friendly apps their friends and relatives can begin using.
While bringing software freedom to mobile phone users isn't the specific target of either one of these bills, guaranteeing a user's ability to "sideload" apps and alternate app stores onto their device is necessary to preserving their freedom, especially in a world where Apple and Google can exert their influence in the form of forced updates, removing apps that don't fit their way of viewing the world, or requiring that Digital Restrictions Management (DRM)-enabling libraries be added to particular programs. And as sideloading requires being able to add or remove app stores at will, we're looking forward to the day where users can choose to disable the Apple app store from their device -- before getting rid of it for good.
If you're in the United States, we hope that you'll take the time to voice your support of either or both of these antitrust bills to your representative -- and perhaps find your own way to participate in Antitrust Day.
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Nervous? Try using the following script:
*I live in CITY/STATE. I am calling to urge you to vote in support of the Open Apps Market Act and The American Innovation and Choice Online Act. Users deserve complete control over the programs they run on their devices, and we can no longer allow corporate monopolies to be the sole arbiter of what apps are or are not acceptable on their platforms. Thank you for your time.
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