How Apple, Google, and your wireless carrier control your phone

You own your cellphone. So you should be able to do with it what you want, right? Wrong, unfortunately. Apple, Google, your wireless carrier, and others all control what you can do with your phone. They prevent you from downloading apps; they may remotely delete apps from your phone; they may even prevent you from downloading operating system updates necessary to use your phone.

Just how do they exercise this control, and how does it affect you? Read on to find out.


Gatekeepers: The Manufacturer of Your Phone's OS

Companies that control what you can do with your phone are called "gatekeepers." They determine what software (usually apps) you can install on your phone. With smartphones, one gatekeeper is the maker of your phone's operating system (Apple, Google, Microsoft, RIM). Apple is an especially zealous gatekeeper; it must approve all prospective iPhone apps before any (non-jailbroken) iPhone user can install the app on their phone.

Why does gatekeeping harm you? Well, it doesn't always. One virtue of zealous gatekeeping is that it helps protect your phone from apps containing viruses or malware. Nobody wants to download a new app only to find it renders her cellphone unusable.

But virtues come at a cost. A cost to the cellphone user, and a cost to app developers. One cost is in terms of unfairly rejected apps, apps the cellphone user cannot install on his cellphone because of the OS manufacturers' overzealous—and sometimes questionable—gatekeeping. Here, the developer loses because it expended resources in developing an app for sale, only to find out that it actually can't sell it. This can be a "serious blow" to the developer's business. And the consumer also loses because she lost the right to choose, and she can't use the potentially killer app.

A good example of this is Google's recently removing Grooveshark, a popular music playing app, from its Android Market for violating its terms of service. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, Google "refus[ed] to provide an actual legal or policy basis for the [removal]." Without knowing the specific violation, Grooveshark effectively couldn't remedy it. Further, Google's silence only fuels speculation—maybe it removed the app "because it [would] compete with Google’s . . . soon-to-be-released cloud music service."

Another cost to cellphone users is effectively losing control over all apps on their phone. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have the power to remotely remove apps from your phone. On the one hand, the purpose of remote deletion is usually benevolent: it "protect[s] users from malicious applications." But even with a benevolent purpose, remotely deleting apps is "always a little disconcerting" because once an app is on our phone, we feel like we own it—even if Google or Apple says otherwise.

More Gatekeepers: Your Cellphone's Manufacturer and Wireless Carrier

Google, Apple, Microsoft—all are gatekeepers. But they are not the only gatekeepers to your phone. Both your cellphone's manufacturer and wireless carrier are too.

Unfortunately, little good comes from them serving as gatekeepers. It often results in them prohibiting you from updating your phone's operating system.

Samsung, for example, recently "announced that its line of Galaxy S phones, one of the most popular Android phone models of 2010, will not get Google's latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich." That's 10 million people missing out on the latest Android operating system because Samsung said so.

Another recent example comes from carriers of the Windows Phone. The OS had a glitch: the phone's virtual keyboard disappeared while users typed. And Microsoft released an update fixing this glitch. Given the severity of this glitch, I imagine most—if not all—users would want to install this update ASAP. Too bad they couldn't; their wireless carriers wouldn't allow it. The choice of updating was left entirely to the carrier. So the phones' users—the only people suffering from the glitch—had to continue suffering until their carrier allowed them to install Microsoft's update.

A third recent example comes from Verizon. Verizon is prohibiting its customers from using Android's new innovative feature Google Wallet. Though Verizon justifies their actions by citing security concerns, the actual reason may be more malevolent: Verizon is acting anticompetitively. Verizon is producing its own software that competes with Google Wallet, and it may be trying to force its customers to use its own product by prohibiting them from choosing Google's.

New Media Rights Can Help

All gatekeepers are different. The rules governing what they can and can't do depends on each of their terms. Further complicating this is the multitude of gatekeepers: your phone's OS manufacturer, your phone's manufacturer, and your wireless carrier may all control how you use your phone. This may make it difficult for you to discern your rights. 

But fear not! New Media Rights is here to help, both cellphone users and app developers. For users, we can help you understand just what are your legal rights, based on your specific circumstances. Feel free to contact us with your issue through email or give us a call at (619) 591-8870. 

We CAN'T actually track down someone's cell phone for you, and we CAN'T troubleshoot problems that you have with your phone. But we CAN offer advice on the legality of cell phone tracking, removals from your favorite app stores, and help understanding the laws that relate to your phone.

And for developers, we can offer guidance on the risks of developing apps for various OSs. We can also help you if your app was rejected from an app store—help you understand why it was rejected, and help you determine whether you have any recourse.

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Photo Credit - "The iPhone 4" by Jorge Quinteros released under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works, Attribution 2.0 License

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