It only takes one bad Apple

Apple’s recent removal of a WikiLeaks application from its itunes App Store could lead to a product boycott.

Apple fell into line with other corporate giants by removing an ipad WikiLeaks application earlier this week [GETTY]

It was hard enough getting through the holiday season already.

With Master Card, Visa, PayPal and Amazon.com, all ending their relationships with WikiLeaks, it has become almost impossible for someone who cares about free speech, press freedoms as well as government and corporate accountability to function in society, never mind shopping for Hanukkah and Christmas presents.

But at least Apple wouldn’t let me down; or so I thought.

For the last two years my MacBook Pro has literally been on my lap 10 or more hours a day, and it has the wear to prove it – letters rubbed out and hard to press, screen uncleanably dirty, the cover cracked on both sides near the base.

And so as the holidays approached and most everyone else at my department seemed to show up with a shiny new MacBook, it seemed only a matter of time before I gave in and bought a new one myself.

No more.

Et tu, Apple?

On December 21, Apple pulled a WikiLeaks application from its iTunes store, banning it forever. When reporters queried the company about why it did so, the response was: “We removed WikiLeaks because it violated developer guidelines. An app must comply with all local laws. It may not put an individual or target group in harm’s way.”

And so Apple has joined capital’s war on WikiLeaks; adding its power to that of the credit card company’s online retailers and even Swiss banks who refuse to do any business with the grassroots whistleblowing organisation that has done more to bring the malfeasance of governments and corporations to the light of public scrutiny than any other organisation in at least two generations.

And because of that, I will never buy another Apple product again. You’ve made your choice, Mr. Jobs, and now so have I.

Too Dangerous?

You see, if WikiLeaks is too dangerous for Apple, than so must be I.

I have been accused by right wing commentators and activists of putting Americans, Jews, Israelis and impressionable college students in harm’s way. I have been named one of the “101 most dangerous professors” in America because I routinely criticised US and Israeli policies (never mind that I’ve also criticized the policies of most other governments). I’ve been called a Marxist and an abetter of terrorism and anti-Semitism.

Shouldn’t I be banned from iTunes as well?

As part of the project for my book Heavy Metal Islam, I produced a compilation album, Flowers in the Desert, that features some of the best hard rock, metal, hiphop and hardcore artists from around the Muslim world.

From Morocco to Pakistan, these artists have been accused of being deadly threats to their societies by governments and conservative religious figures. They have been arrested, beaten, convicted of crimes, threatened with death by senior religious officials, and banned from performing.

All because they dared to use Western-inspired rock music to express the myriad frustrations, fears and even dreams of their lives growing up in authoritarian, corrupt and often violent countries.

Meeting and falling in love with these artists, their stories and their sounds, I have done whatever I could to spread their message and their music as widely as possible. Including making sure Flowers in the Desert was available on iTunes.

Tell me, Mr. Jobs, shouldn’t you pull my album from your store? Who’s to say that I’m not more dangerous than WikiLeaks?

I can introduce you to a bunch of conservative Muslims, from at least a dozen countries, who would tell you that WikiLeaks is great but me and my Middle Eastern musical comrades are putting Muslims in harms way and should not be allowed to distribute our Devil’s music to anyone.

Don’t their feelings count? Shouldn’t you pull my album to protect them and their children from harms way? You’re not prejudiced against God-fearing Muslims, are you?

First porn, then politics and culture

Pulling WikiLeaks from the iTunes store might have surprised some people; but there have already been hints that beneath the shiny, sleek designs and hyper cool image, Apple harbors censorial inclinations.

To begin with, when the iPad was launched, Jobs made a point of declaring that it would be free of pornography. “Freedom from porn,” he declare proudly. “Yep, freedom.”

You don’t have to be a fan of pornography to understand the implications of one person or corporation prohibiting a consumer from consuming legal content on their products. Magazines, including the prestigious german publications Stern and Bild, have seen their apps pulled because they ran topless photo spreads, or had to put bikinis on models.

And Apple has also banned apps with political cartoons and gay travel guides, leading the Guardian to declare in May that “many magazine publishers developing ‘apps’ for the new iPad… have had to self-censor.”

Not so cool. Not so free. No longer for Me

So I guess Apple isn’t as cool as it seems.

Or as functional, if one is concerned about the proper functioning of the public sphere and the democracy that rests upon it.

Come to think of it, WikiLeaks hasn’t been convicted of breaking any law, nor has it been shown to have put any Americans in harm’s way, unless you consider exposing the lies of our political leaders to the public putting them in harm’s way. So Apple has banned WikiLeaks preemptively, when it had no legal reason to do so. That is the essence of self-censorship, the greatest sin a media company can commit.

And that leaves me, with my slowly dying MacBook Pro, wondering how I’m going to survive in what will likely soon be a post-Apple world, at least in my case. I don’t want to leave Apple, just as I don’t want to stop shopping at Amazon.com, using my Master Card to get more miles for my frequent flyer plan, or paying with PayPal when I just want to pay straight from my checking account.

But however much easier these products and services have made my life, the threat posed by their treatment of WikiLeaks (and who knows what other, far less well-known organisations we don’t even know about) to the most basic freedom citizens must enjoy in order for democracy to survive – to know the full truth about what their governments do in their name and with their money – cannot stand.

However much we might love our iPods, iPads and MacBooks, if we are not willing to sacrifice aesthetic elegance for political principle, we don’t really deserve to enjoy them in the first place.

Sorry, Mr. Jobs. Email me when I can get WikiLeaks and porn on an iPad. Until then, it looks like I’ll be going with a Vaio, Linux and CD Baby when my old MacBook finally dies.

Postscript: About an hour after I sent a friend the link to this article, he sent me an email with a link to the Swedish equivalent of Craig’s List, where he decided to put his brand new iPad up for sale.

Postscript 2: A reader emailed me to explain that in fact one can still get porn and WikiLeaks on the iPad the same way you can on any computer: through the internet browser. He also explained that “the technical argument Apple cited for pulling the app was true: Barinov was violating the app-store rules stating that “Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free…”  while the app is not.

But if this was the main issue, Apple could have demanded that the app be given away rather than sold, when in fact it was banned forever. As for using a browser to view WikiLeaks or porn, that is true, but as the evidence I presented demonstrates, Apple has actively censored content on its iPad and iTunes, which I find indefensible.

Mark Levine is a professional musician and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of half a dozen books, including Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (forthcoming, Random House/Verso, companion CD to be released by EMI Records).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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