September 2014
The U2 Incident (15 September 2014)
Apple's "Warrant-Proof" Encryption (23 September 2014)

The U2 Incident

15 September 2014

There’s been a bit of an uproar of late about Apple giving away—more precisely, installing in everyone’s iTunes libraries—a copy of a new U2 album. This has made many people very uncomfortable, so much so that Apple had to create a special removal tool. Why is this so upsetting? Would people have been so upset if Apple had simply mailed them a CD? I doubt it—but why is this different?

We often have an uneasy relationship with our gadgets because we don’t really feel that we control them. Often, they do something completely unexpected. Of course, that’s generally due to buggy code or to user misunderstanding of what should happen, rather than anything more sinister. Sometimes, though, we’re reminded that the vendor still has certain powers. This is one such time.

Generally, we purchase our toys. I own my iPhone; no one else has any rights to do anything to it. That’s even a provision of Federal law, which criminalizes access "without authorization or exceeding authorized access". We don’t buy software or services, though; rather, we license them, and we rarely understand the precise license terms. In this case, Apple exercised certain rights not over our devices directly, but over our iTunes accounts; this in turn caused the album to be downloaded to our devices, whether or not we wanted it. (Aside: I didn’t see any relevant clauses, pro or con, in the iTunes Terms and Conditions page.) This was, to say the least, surprising.

The problem is that by doing this, Apple has violated our mental model of our personal space, or perhaps our personal cyberspace. Our iTunes library is our iTunes library; it feels wrong for someone else to mess with it. This violates what I’ve termed the Technical-Social Contract. I noted seven years ago that

Fundamentally, these incidents are all the same: people had a mental (and sometimes legal) model of what was "normal" and possible; technology changed, and one party’s behavior changed with it, to the shock of the other.
That’s what has happened here: Apple has surprised people with its ability to control "our" space. It’s not as nasty or as unpleasant as when Amazon deleted 1984 from someone’s Kindle, but the unease stems from the same source: the company has power over "our" content. We understand physical junk mail, even if it’s an unwanted CD. This, though, feels more like somone walking into our houses and putting a new CD on our shelves. If Apple had merely mailed out a URL—"click here to get a new, free album!"—no one would have been upset. That isn’t what they did.