Google Removed Catalonian Referendum App Following Spanish Court Order

from the this-seems-problematic dept

Last month, we wrote about the crazy situation in Spain, where the government was so totally freaked out about a Catalonian referendum on independence that it shut down the operators of the .cat domain, arrested the company's head of IT for "sedition" and basically shut down a ton of websites about the referendum. The Washington Post now has an article with even more details about the digital attacks in both directions around the Catalonian independence referendum, including hack attacks and DDoS attacks. But one thing caught my eye. Apparently, the supporters of the referendum had created an app called "On Votar 1-Oct." The app had a bunch of the expected functions:

The app, available on Google Play until just before 7 p.m. on Friday, helps people to find their polling station via their address and shows the closest polling stations on Google Maps via GPS, the name of the town or keywords.

It also allows users to share links to polling station locations.

But the Spanish government was so freaked out by the referendum and anything related to it, that it ran and got a court order demanding Google take the app out of Google's app store:

The court order told Google Inc—at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway Mountain View CA 94043 (USA)—to take down the app located at that URL and also to block or eliminate any future apps submitted by the user with e-mail address "onvotar1oct@gmail.com" or identifying as "Catalonia Voting Software".

The judge says in her ruling that the tweet with the app link is "only a continuation of the actions of the [Catalan government] to block" Constitutional Court and High Court orders "repeatedly".

In the Washington Post article, the CTO of the Catalonian government explains why this is so disappointing:

“I’m a tech guy,” says Jordi Puigneró, chief technology officer of the Catalonian government. “So I’ve always been a great fan of Google and its principles of respect for digital rights. But now I’m really disappointed with the company.” (Puigneró’s office was also occupied by police during the referendum, he says.)

And you can understand why he's disappointed. But, the real problem here, seems to be going back to the same problem we keep identifying over and over again: deep centralization of the digital world. Part of the very promise of Android was that it was supposed to be open, and people weren't supposed to be locked into just Google's app store. And, indeed, there are competing app stores -- but the general argument around them (with the possible exception of Amazon's competing Android app store) is that if you want to keep your device secure, you'll only download via Google's app store.

And then we're back to a problem where there's a centralized choke point for censorship -- one which the Spanish government is able to exploit to make that app much more difficult to access. Google, for its part, said it took the app down because it had received a valid court order. And, that's true, but it's also opening up yet another path to widespread censorship. Google has stood up against similar situations in the past, but the decision of whether or not a movement should be stifled should never come down to whether or not a giant company like Google decides its worth taking a moral stand against a legal court order. The problem is much more systemic, and its built into this world where we've started to build back up gatekeepers.

For nearly two decades, I've argued that the real power of the internet was not -- as many people initally argued -- that it got rid of "middlemen," but rather that the middlemen turned into enablers rather than gatekeepers. In the old world, when only some content could get released/published/sold/etc., you had to rely on gatekeepers to choose which tiny percentage would get blessed. The power of internet platforms was that they became enablers, allowing anyone to use those platforms and to publish/release/sell/distribute things themselves, often to a much wider audience. But there'a always a risk that over time, former enablers become gatekeepers. And it's a fear we should be very conscious about -- even if it's not done on purpose.

To be clear, I don't think Google wants to be a gatekeeper around things like apps. It would prefer not to be. But because the marketplace has become so important, and because Google's role is so central, it almost has no choice. And when governments start issuing court orders to take down apps, suddenly Google is left with few good options. Either it censors or it picks fights with a government. And even if many of us would probably support and cheer on the latter as a choice, we should be concerned that this is even an issue at all. The solution has to be less reliance on centralized platforms and centralized choke points. Catalonians shouldn't have to rely on Google to get a simple voting app out to the public. The next big breakthroughs need to be towards getting past such bottlenecks.

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Filed Under: bottlenecks, catalonia, democracy, election, independence, play store, points of failure, referendum, spain
Companies: google


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2017 @ 5:47pm

    Re: Re: Re: But NO problem when Google chooses what will be censored?

    One should do their own research when attempting to defend a claim, challenging others to do your work for you is lame.

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