By Frédéric Filloux
Sunday, February 14, 2010; G02
I live in a country (France) where censorship is a big deal. It comes mostly from greedy celebrities; they use a legal system that largely favors them. Often, they find a compassionate judge to rule on the issue of extracting money as compensation for a supposed privacy violation or for some other unauthorized disclosure. Convictions are frequent and expensive and can lead to the seizure of a magazine or even a book. France has a long history of such practices. In the early '60s, the country was waging a colonial war in Algeria. Then, for the most avid news readers, the game was to get the weekly magazine L'Express at the kiosk as early as possible before French authorities seized it.
Imagine this scenario in a coming iPad era. An iPad newsmagazine publishes an investigative piece that triggers a legal injunction: Remove that from the publication or face a $10,000 penalty per day. No, says the publisher, who has guts and money (proof that this is a fiction): We want to fight in court. The plaintiff then turns to Apple (AAPL). Same threat: Face a huge fine or remove the offending content. Furthermore, says the plaintiff's attorney, thanks to the permanent and unique electronic link to your proprietary devices and the fact that the electronic kiosk now resides on the device, you must extend the deletion to each user's tablet. Just as you keep pushing updates and various content bits to these gizmos, you can push a delete instruction code.
What would Apple do? This is a question of balance of power. If the legal action involves some neuron-challenged celebrity, chances are Apple won't balk. But what if Nicolas Sarkozy or his whispering-singer wife are the plaintiffs? The truth is that, given the pattern of legal actions against the press in France, it is more than certain that a French judge will be tempted to request an immediate remote deletion of presumably infringing content. Then we'll see a replay of what happened last summer: Amazon remotely deleted a copy of George Orwell's "1984" in the Kindles of buyers because of copyright issues.
With the iPad structure, Apple is creating absolute control for product, delivery and even ownership that can be revoked at will. Apple allows or rejects the application (the container); it can remove all or part of any content from its servers; and it can even remotely delete the stuff you purchased. Imagine: You go to a bookstore and spend $25 on a book that a court later finds illicit; a bookstore employee then goes to your place, takes the book from the shelf and leaves some money on your kitchen table. Wouldn't you be slightly uncomfortable with this?
Journalism, much more than music or entertainment, requires channels of dissemination that cannot be vulnerable to any kind of leverage. For content to be free (as in free speech, not free beer), platforms and networks must be neutral. Any closed, proprietary system contradicts this imperative.
Some will retort that your content could still be freely available on the Internet and, therefore, in a neutral platform/network environment. Yes and no. Yes, of course, I might be able to post hot stuff on a blog. But let's project five years from now. I'm the publisher of a digital-only magazine. The iPad and the iNews Store have become the de facto standard for paid news distribution with a market share of 74 percent, equivalent to what the iPod had in 2010. Most of the news that's fit to be pixelized has found refuge under Steve Jobs's umbrella.
One day, we publish a piece that triggers an irate response from the story's subjects. Inevitably, a judge finds it objectionable. We are ready for a legal fight. But if Apple balks, we are out of luck. Of course, we have the option to go on the Internet, but it is exactly as though, in the '60s, the journalists of L'Express had mimeographed and distributed their Algerian war stories by hand in the streets of Paris.
That's why Apple's choice for a closed system changes the game. In Jobs's mind, the iPad is meant to become the ultimate personal computer, replacing most of the devices that we currently use to get music and entertainment. And news. And knowledge.
For the publishing community, the choice is therefore:
a) Go for it with a flurry of applications -- and thus contribute to building a tightly controlled, gated-content community;
b) Put some eggs in other baskets (Amazon's or PlasticLogic's, for instance) that are neither neutral nor philanthropic.
This leaves us with three conclusions:
1) Undoubtedly, the iPad could be a fantastic publishing platform with a powerful transaction system attached to it. As many do already, I'm considering a purely digital magazine built on great content and beautiful layout and supported by a mixture of paid-for and clever and graphically attractive advertising. But we'd have to bet that Apple will always position itself as a neutral platform.
2) It might not be economically feasible to publish on several platforms just to hedge such a remote risk. The variety of formats, the technologies (LCD display, like the iPad, or e-Ink, like the Kindle) would make such on-the-fly content adaptation far too costly.
3) Therefore, it is a good idea to keep considering Web-based paywalls -- whatever the forms -- and mobile applications on multiple platforms. After all, the Internet is the one vehicle that is the most likely to remain open and neutral.
Frédéric Filloux is the editor of the Monday Note, where this first appeared, and a contributor to Slate.fr.
-- The Big Money