Opinion: Apple's response to free speech would make Stalin proud
September 16, 1999
by Lawrence Lessig
(IDG) -- At the end of August, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's latest Macintosh, the G4. Touted as the first "personal supercomputer", the machine promises to make a scad of Mac enthusiasts much more enthusiastic and threatens a new round of Pentium-bashing TV ads. ("Up to twice as fast as 600MHz Pentium III PCs!")
One group of Mac enthusiasts, however, was not very happy — owners of the earlier G3 who had been wise and unlucky enough to install a firmware upgrade to the G3 ROM. The upgrade apparently made the G3 itself un-upgradeable. Upgraded G3 Mac owners who want the newer chip must now downgrade their existing system to the trash and buy a new machine.
G3 owners were hopping mad, and on an Apple-hosted forum they demanded an explanation. What purpose could there be for hobbling the G3 so that it couldn't become a G4?
The company didn't say. Instead, soon into the skirmish, an Apple employee posted a schoolmarmish missive: Apple never promised upgradeability, the employee astutely observed, warning that "additional posts to the thread will be removed, and since the entire thread is off-topic, it will most likely be removed as well." True to the threat, Apple then deleted the unhappy messages — airbrushing the discontent away with an ease that the Soviets would have envied.
I doubt Apple tried to block migration, and I'm quite sure that the computer maker will change the upgrade soon. But I do find this corporate response to criticism interesting. We live in a "free-speech" world; our national identity is tied to the ideals of the First Amendment. And yet we treat it as obvious that in corporate space, the Bolsheviks rule. We trust free speech where it doesn't really matter (politics); we banish it where money is the bottom line (business).
But consider a company called NetBeans, which is developing a really cool developer's environment for Java applications. About the same time the G3 storm broke, a sharply negative post was made on a NetBeans' forum by an unhappy NetBeaner. Like the G3 post, this was not designed to make NetBeans look good. Yet the company let the message, and the discussion, flow. This critic was not silenced.
The reason was a NetBeans policy, a kind of corporate First Amendment: Posts on NetBeans forums are not edited. Participants are free to say what they will.
Janet Haven of NetBeans explains: "We rely on our users to send us negative comments. … Users who enter into critical discussions are doing us a service. They are constructively negative for the obvious reason that they want to use a better version of the product."
So why does Apple think differently from NetBeans? Or maybe the different thinking is by NetBeans. It's a small company; it hasn't got slick ad campaigns going; it doesn't have an "image" to manage. At this stage, all it's got is code, and it wants its code to be better. Maybe it's just a matter of time until NetBeans thinks like Apple.
But I think the difference goes deeper. NetBeans isn't a Silicon Valley wonder. Its headquarters is in Prague, not Palo Alto, Calif. Its president, Roman Stanek, is a young Czech, though old enough to remember a time when freedom came from the West, and Soviets lived to the East. Ask him about the NetBeans policy, and he sounds a bit less pragmatic. Of course, he told me, a public forum would not be censored. When I outlined all the very pragmatic reasons why companies control speech, a disbelieving look broke across his face. "That is the old world," he told me. "This is the market." His company would rise and fall on the truth, and the truth would rise more quickly in an open forum governed by a commitment to free speech.
I can't help but feel a certain respect for this post-communist capitalist: one who is willing to put his money where other peoples' mouths are, willing to let his product be tested by open and free debate. After growing up on the wrong side of the curtain, he doesn't need to be told to "think different." He just does – different from how Apple thinks, different from how most companies think, different from how I think I would think.
NetBeans is a new company. I don't know its numbers, but I'm certain it can't match Steve Jobs' recent success at Apple. And no doubt, if it takes off, experts will advise it as the marketing mavens have advised Apple: Control comes first, freedom works if it sells. If the truth hurts, erase it.
I confess I don't know what I would do if I were running Apple: Millions are on the line and "the crazy ones" are posting to my Web site. I'm sure I would think no differently than its managers. But I'm not proud of that. I'm also not proud to think that we've so lost our faith in the ideals of free expression that even Apple thinks no differently from the rest.
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