Should Apple Disable GPS in Egypt?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

An article in today's New York Times reports that, as a condition for permitting sale of the iPhone in Egypt, the country's government "demanded that Apple disable the phone’s global-positioning system, arguing that GPS is a military prerogative." Apple apparently has agreed to do so.

As someone who views myself as a defender of civil liberties, I asked myself: "How should I react to this news?" My initial gut reaction was easy enough: "Stand up to the Egyptian government. Stand up for freedom. Refuse to sell a GPS-disabled iPhone in Egypt. It's time to draw a line in the sand."

After I calmed down a bit, I realized that lines are not always clearly defined. And it's not always obvious which side you should be on.

To help me sort out these dilemmas, I often begin by extracting the essence of the situation into a simplified hypothetical example. In this case, I imagined the Egyptian government explaining the rationale behind their demand in an uncharacteristically blunt reply: "The success of our government depends upon a repressed and uninformed population. We are concerned that a GPS-enabled phone would hurt our authoritarian efforts."

I also ignored whether the government's perceived threat is real. That is, even without an iPhone, the citizenry may have easy access to GPS information via other sources. And having that information may in fact pose no actual danger to the government. Regardless, let's just accept the government here at its hypothetical word: it wants to repress the freedom of its population. Finally, let's imagine that, by going along with the Egyptian government, Apple stands to make some significant bucks, in the order of millions of dollars per year.

What should Apple do?

Within this simplified framework, it was not clear to me that Apple is in any sense morally obligated to pass on a profit here in order to make a political statement. Surely Apple does not 100% agree with the politics of every country where it sells iPhones. Should Apple refuse to sell iPhones in any dictatorship? I don't think so. In any case, as also suggested in the New York Times article, there is no inalienable right to GPS access. GPS is not protected by the Geneva convention or any other document. If Apple chooses to disable GPS so as to make more money, I don't see this as an abdication of its moral responsibility.

I understand there is a slippery slope to walk. What if Egypt made a much more onerous demand? What if it required that Apple include a GPS-feature in each iPhone -- one that went in the opposite direction so to speak? That is, it allowed the government to locate all iPhone users, even without the iPhone user's permission? Assuming Apple could accommodate this demand, should it? To me, the answer here is a definite no. This would be a clear violation of an individual's right to privacy. Of course, individuals in Egypt may not have privacy as a government-protected right. Still, that doesn't mean Apple should help the government violate this right.

But the slope slants in the other direction as well. Apple currently disables features in iPhones sold in the United States! It's not a government-demanded restriction. But it is a limitation none-the-less. In particular, Apple has disabled the Bluetooth functionality of the iPhone, compared to almost all other mobile phones. Currently, you can't use the iPhone with stereo Bluetooth headphones. Or as a tethered Bluetooth modem -- at least not via an Apple sanctioned method (see this Apple Discussions posting for more on this topic).

Most egregious, you can't even link an iPhone to Apple's own Mac OS X Bluetooth file-sharing software on a Mac. The iPhone is one of the few (only?) Bluetooth phones that don't work with Mac OS X here. Why is this? Apple has not offered an official explanation, as far as I know. I assume it is part of Apple's general prohibition against providing direct access to the iPhone's content other than via iTunes. More generally, AT&T may be a source of pressure here as well, especially as regards the modem use.

Other than differences in the source of the pressure (Egypt vs. AT&T vs. Apple itself), are Apple's Bluetooth limits in the U.S. fundamentally different from Apple's GPS limits in Egypt? The source difference does matter, especially when one of the sources is the government. Still, it's a blurry line being drawn. I am not sure I could comfortably argue that Apple must stand up to Egypt while I give Apple a pass when it comes to standing up to AT&T.

Maybe the best thing to do is protest all of it. Demand that Apple stand up to Egypt and open up iPhone Bluetooth access here in the United States. Or maybe not.

That's the thing about blurry lines and slippery slopes. It's not always easy to know where you stand.

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13 Comments Leave Your Own

Terrin

If you consider yourself as a defender of civil liberties you should clearly not buy an iPhone at all. The iPhone after all is manufactured in China, one of the worst upholders of such principles.

geoduck

I see it in another light. Apple is often criticized for not being willing to customize computers for large Enterprise customers. They have apparently refused to sell MacBooks without a built in camera to clients with security concerns for example. This puts that refusal in a weaker position. “We don’t customize our products, unless we will.” It makes Apple seem somewhat arbitrary.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

If you want GPS in Cairo
You won’t get it in your iPhone
The government says no, no, so
You’re driving like an Egyptian.

All the Egyptian driver say
Where do I go? Where do I go?
Drive like an Egyptian
Drive like an Eqyptian

marc

You americans are missing the point… about real freedom.
Your law ALLOW companies like Apple to sell this crippled and sim-locked iPhone in your own countries.

At least some European countries FORCE companies like Apple to sell sim-unlocked devices (belgium, italy) and i really hope that the EU will force all member-states in the future to provide law that forces companies to give 100% ownership of any product to their customers.

Unfortunately I am not from belgium or italy, but i imported my device from italy. I wont support this crippled sim-locked crap.

To come back to egypt:
Apple does what every companie does. bend the law as far as possible for their own benefit. they sell it without gps for profit…. they sell it sim-locked because they are allowed to do it… and they sell it sim-unlocked in some countries, because otherwise the would sell zero units in that country.

it’s that simple.

deasys

Marc, I’m not sure that “real freedom” is defined by one’s freedom to choose other cell carriers. Anywho…

You should also know that the iPhone is anything but “crippled.”

zahadum

caving in to an anti-democratic regime like Egypt sets a very bad precedent for the supposed demand by the Chinese government for apple to cripple wifi on the iPhone - presumably on account the fear of independent/ad hoc networks being used to circumvent government censorship (aka The Great Firewall of China).

apple should stand firm, and not compromise the integrity of it’s customers’ access to all data from all sources.

iJack

The Egyptians have a point.  They are an anti-Islamist country surrounded by any number of Islamist hotheads.

We had the same restrictions here for a long time.  After KAL 007 was shot down for straying into USSR airspace, Ronald Reagan lifted the restriction.  Civilian GPS got better, and became ubiquitous - another consumer electronic.

Shortly after reaching this state of ubiquity, a bunch of hotheads (see above), who knew only how to steer an airplane, flew very accurately from Boston Logan into the World Trade Center, and from Dulles International into the Pentagon.  I promise you, they did not do this without the use of GPS, whether the one in the cockpit, or a handheld purchased from Walmart or Radio Shack.

Sometimes the rights of a nation to protect itself trump the rights of it’s citizens to find the nearest sushi bar.

C

If you see the GPS as a human right, I guess we have a different way to value things. I see it like this:

? Is it wrong of the Egyptian government to ban use of GPS?
Yes.

? Is it up to the people in Egypt to decide if they want to buy a GPS disabled phone (as ALL their phones are)?
YES! If you say no, I see it as you want to deny their right to freedom of choice. There is more to the iPhone than the GPS. Apple won’t change the world by denying the Egyptian people getting iPhones. It’s a nice thought if it would, but really, it won’t happen by doing that.
Is this GPS deal more about a principal, than what it means for the people?

After taking a look at Google maps, it seems like the maps section is out of sync with the satellite images in Egypt. Also, at many places the maps seems to be totally made up (could be that new roads are being built, but this seem to be all over the place). This would limit the use of the GPS quite a lot.


Btw, why is this page set to auto-refresh deleting all of the contents in these text fields? Second time it happened now. Extremely annoying.

aardman

Of all the human and civil rights abuses going on in Egypt, you got upset about iPhone not being allowed to have GPS?

danthemason

Give anyone an iPhone crippled or not and their freedoms expand exponentially. Their rights will follow in time.

rjackb

I don’t understand why this is even being written about or discussed. Egypt is a sovereign nation and thus is completely entitled to establish its own laws, rules, and policies whether you like them or not. I think it is typical American arrogance to try to cram our own constitutional rights, laws, policies, or principles down some other country’s throat. I’m a strong defender of American civil liberties myself but an equally strong defender of a nation’s sovereignty.

hurghada an doctor from egypt

hi, i am from hurghada and i have iphone and i was surpriese that this was done be apple. but why just as the govermnet want this. this is not accepted for us as user really.

What is wrong with the GPS at Egypt. in hurghada it is tourism area and we need this in many situation and it is not allowed. this is not good and i think they have to change it soon.

hurghada

i am dissapointed as the people look to egypt this way.

We are really now start to change the country just it take time. but buy this way if apple or any othere company follow the rules in the goverment we will need longer time. smile

Hurghada is city which we need this GPS in what is wrong with it i do not know

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