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Regulating App Stores

Increasingly, your tax dollars are used to develop applications--aka apps--that are only available on the Google or Apple "app stores".  There are two points here, first is that tax payer money is being used to develop public service applications, but you have to use a private company to get access to your apps. The FSFE is correct in asking

Why is software created using taxpayers’ money not released as Free Software?

We want legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available under a Free and Open Source Software licence. If it is public money, it should be public code as well.

Code paid by the people should be available to the people!
FSFE Public Money, Public Code campaign

The FSFE is, naturally, focused on the EU. The same argument holds for the USA and other countries. I'm not talking about code used for only internal government usage. I'm talking about government agencies that interact with the public that 1) could offer a website application to do 100% of everything, but 2) push their app instead. This is true for every US Government agency that directly serves the public as it is for every state agency. 

Here's an example, CA DMV Mobile app. Here are the lengthy terms of service you agree to when installing and using their mobile application. There is so much wrong here, but let's start somewhere, 2.4 "The App contains proprietary intellectual property rights belonging to DMV and its third party licensors." Sorry, my taxes paid for this app, why is anything in it proprietary? Why is the app only available in a place where I have to agree to even more Terms? Where is the source to the app? Where can I download the apk or package for installation directly from the DMV?

I'm being pedantic about this because everyone is increasingly running into it. "Want faster/easier/better service? Use our app! It's available in the app store!  We're hip and modern, we have an app!"

Personally, I'd prefer the app available in source form, built on F-droid/IzzyDroid, or their own f-droid compatible repo. Really, I'd prefer the "app" to be a website and not have to use some API to do anything. The US Digital Service exists, we could use it to make better website services for everyone, not just those who agree to proprietary terms of service.

The Conversation

This whole post started percolating in my head months ago when I was trying to get my passport renewed. "Download our app!" The argument is that Apple/Google/commercial app stores are just like the phone company. The problem is just like early phone companies, the telco provided the phone and the service. Only Company A's telephone was compatible with Company A's service. One of the tings the Communications Act of 1934 forced was standards, and devices separate from service. People did opt out of phone service for a long time. And when did adoption grow the fastest?  When the phone companies were regulated. I need to find the original source, perhaps it was in John Brooks' book about the first hundred years of the telephone, but there is a table that looks something like this:

YearHousehold Phone PenetrationRegulation Status
192035%Before Regulation
193040%Before Regulation
194037%Before Regulation
195059%After Initial Regulation (Communications Act of 1934)
196078%Regulated Environment
197092%Regulated Environment

After World War 2 and austerity ended, plus the regulation of telcos, phone penetration skyrocketed. There's a lag, because after 1934, it took time for the law to come into force.

A Working Proposal

I'm still working on a better proposal, but divesting the app stores from Apple/Alphabet/etc and into regulated companies would be a step in the right direction. Force the app stores to be separate and distinct from the operating system. Mobile computing is a market ripe for innovation and disruption. As an analogy, I don't have to buy a car from the manufacturer, I could if I wanted to, but It's not the only option available. And if I don't like the policies of one car manufacturer, there is competition, so I can go elsewhere. We can't do this with mobile operating systems. To use the Apple app store, you have to buy an Apple phone and use their operating system. To use the Google Play Store, you have to use Android (which is written and controlled by Google/Alphabet). 

I have no choice but to trust the telcos (phone/internet companies) these days. Well, I could opt out of that personally, but nearly everything you do involves a telco directly or indirectly. 

The EU's Digital Markets Act is not the same thing. That's focused on creating a more fair marketplace for companies of all sizes. I'm looking to regulate what can and cannot be done with app stores. We shouldn't have to agree to a whole host of Google, Apple, etc policies just to install an app. We should be able to simply install the app, and if the app is from the government, inspect the source code and use only govt-authorized apps with regulated data collection. Why does Google Analytics and crash data need access to my contact list or Social Security accounts? We should be able to use a web browser or the official SSA app to only share data with the SSA, and no one else.

If we're going to live in a digital world, we need mandated digital freedoms. Companies have failed to provide digital freedoms for 20 years. Instead they've profited greatly off our taxes and government (ahem all of the Elon Musk companies). Since the commercial market isn't going to do it, it's time the governments of the world to mandate, or provide, our digital freedom. We can start with public money, public code, and move on from there.