Regulating the Cell Phones in your Pockets
In fact, of the some 2,100 bills and resolutions filed in the 2021 session, more than a few were downright atrocious, but at least Georgians can breathe a temporary sigh of relief. The legislature adjourned sine die on March 31, and due to some diligent legislating, the most disturbing bills failed to reach the governor’s desk.
However, when lawmakers return in 2022, some concerning measures await them, including SB 63 and HB 229—both of which appear to be the latest salvo against “Big Tech.” The proposals—if enacted—would virtually dismantle the predominant digital application distribution paradigm that mobile phone users enjoy and take for granted.
Currently, our cell phones come pre-loaded with a host of applications allowing us to send messages, make calls and check the weather. Yet there are millions of other apps that anyone can download either for free or a nominal fee. These include Facebook, dating apps and even some peculiar applications like RunPee, which—you might have guessed it—tells you the best time during a movie to run and use the bathroom.
Whether utilitarian or bizarre, apps have turned mobile devices into veritable super computers that can be tailored to owners’ whims, but the production of millions of apps comes with serious risks. Some could be incompatible with our cell phone hardware and operating systems—causing our devices to malfunction—and others can be imbedded with malware to spy on our activities and even steal our identities or hard-earned money. Given the right environment, this wouldn’t be too difficult, since some of our most personal information is stored on our phones.
Considering the very real hazards, mobile phone operating system designers have understandably instituted safeguards against such dangers. Most cell phone owners install applications from approved distribution platforms: Google Play for Androids and the iOS App Store for iPhones. They are the convenient, trusted, virtual one-stop-shops for our devices. Only applications that have been thoroughly vetted and deemed safe can be accessed and installed from these distribution platforms, which also provide a secure payment processing system.
This is done, in part, to safeguard consumers from potentially dangerous applications and protect their banking information, but it is also part of a private business model that helps fund the supporting infrastructure. Consumers enjoy safe and convenient access to millions of apps, while app developers have a platform to reach millions of users globally, as well as access to a suite of services to build and promote their products. As such, the distribution platform owners charge app developers a commission that usually ranges from 15-30 percent, but free apps aren’t charged anything.
This hardly limits users’ options. The App Store, for instance, currently has nearly 2 million applications available for download, and, per week, has about 500 million visitors. Meanwhile, the Google Play Store boasts around 2.5 million apps.
Despite this, there’s a push to meddle in the app market. Indeed, SB 63 and HB 229 seek to serve two primary purposes: force private companies to allow apps on their devices from other distribution platforms and permit the use of third-party payment systems. In effect, the legislation would allow large app developers to enjoy access to some digital device customer bases, while sidestepping payments to the app store and its safeguards. But this legislative initiative could create serious privacy and security issues by requiring mobile device operating system creators to permit the use of unvetted apps and payment systems from unscrupulous or at least irresponsible developers and merchants.
Moreover, the bills would essentially annul the longstanding contractual agreements between digital application distribution platform proprietors and developers that have helped expand the number of apps and increase affordable access to them. These bills seem like an unnecessary government intervention into private enterprise and an interposition into voluntary business agreements that could prove to be a disaster for mobile users.
Considering all of this, perhaps the timeworn, light-hearted quip about the safety of our rights and liberties should be changed. Maybe it should read: Georgians’ rights and liberties—and even the cell phones in their pockets—are never entirely safe so long as the General Assembly is in session.