Should Apple Disable GPS in Egypt?

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.