Apple iPhoneI love Apple and the iPhone, and have been (as I mentioned here) a Mac user for 16 years. Silicon Valley in general has always been a healthy home for libertarianism, and for a certain form of techno-utopianism wherein technology, and the freedom to create and use it, is seen as the answer to many of society’s ills. I’m largely with them on that. Recently, though, some have been beginning to wonder just how committed Apple is to the idea of liberty with its approach to its iPhone App Store.

The App Store is a marketplace for selling applications that run on the iPhone, and it’s the exclusive place to buy apps for the device. That means if Apple doesn’t want you to have it on your iPhone, you won’t be able to have it. The company is on good grounds in this regard, of course, since it’s Apple’s device, and it’s free to restrict the apps that run on it in any way it chooses. But I’d certainly question the sensibility of censoring apps on the basis of taste, or morality, a process wherein Apple is deciding for its customers what constitutes good and bad. For example, Apple says it won’t allow pornographic apps on the iPhone. Why not? Can’t iPhone users decide whether or not they want those apps? MacWorld editor Jason Snell agrees:

The [main] issue has to do with Apple not being clear on its policies about accepting and rejecting applications. In fact, saying Apple’s policies are unclear is quite an understatement. They’ve been confusing, arbitrary—and cloaked in mystery …. Apple rejected an app that shows a butcher knife and makes a shocking noise. And an app that makes fart noises. And a comic book with some graphic content. …. I’d like to believe that these things are happening because Apple’s still trying to get its act together, and not because it’s decided to exert Soviet-style control over the App Store. …. The right way to handle the App Store is to make it a free market. (This is the approach Google is taking with Android, by the way.) As Shipley writes: “Publish all software submitted to Apple, as long as the software isn’t actively harmful to users, illegal, and does not violate Apple’s agreements with cell phone vendors. Period.”

Quite. Doesn’t this sound familiar to those libertarians among us: the so-called ‘harm principle’ or ‘consent principle’ as applied to technology? Do what you like, as long as you don’t harm others? Snell goes on:

Apple needs to protect iPhone users from illegal and malicious software, absolutely. But beyond that? It should not be Apple’s job—nor is it in the company’s best interests—to be an arbiter of taste. (If Apple is concerned about children and the easily offended, might I suggest a voluntary ratings system for all apps, so developers can warn off such users? iTunes already has content warnings built into it for other media types and even some apps.) In other words, if someone wants to write a fart-generation app, let them. If someone wants to write a butt-ugly e-mail client that only connects to Yahoo Mail, let them. Let the users (and, here’s an idea, those of us who write software reviews) sort the wheat from the chaff. Good ideas will flourish. Bad ideas will, too, if they’re popular enough, and that’s okay.

Steve Jobs is a genius, and someone who I admire greatly. He’s also a control freak, and that explains his success at least in part. But there’s a place for control and there’s a place to honor the rational, free desires of your fellow man. Jobs doesn’t want the iPhone becoming a messy, obnoxious platform where anything goes, no matter the quality. And he should control it to the extent that it’s necessary to maintain such order, as most iPhone users will agree with that vision for the device. But iPhone-owning human beings are individuals, and have ideas and desires and beliefs that Jobs doesn’t need to approve or disapprove of; the iPhone will be a better device if it honors its users’ rationality and freedom to choose what they want to do with it.

As always, a libertarian approach is a superior one. Come on, Apple: make the App Store a free market.