Klaus Zimmermann's Corner

When you use a walled garden, the gardeners are your wardens

There was a rather infuriating piece of news a recently in The Verge that stated that Apple had forced the Protonmail app developers to include In-app Purchases in its free (both in price and as-in-freedom) app or otherwise be prevented from updating its app in the App Store. And when the developer motioned to at least send its users this warning via email, Apple threatened removing it completely.

As infuriating as this story is, if you've been following the free software philosophy and its concerns with everything non-free, there's nothing at all new at stake here. The App Store is just another example of a digital Walled Garden: a platform that looks open, friendly and inviting for everyone to try, but in reality tightly controls everything that happens inside of it. Oftentimes, these controls are subtle and silent - but feel extremely scary once they're applied to you.

The Protonmail team probably knew about the risks of delegating the distribution to a 3rd party in first place, but like everyone else in there, they have no say or rebuttal when dealing against Apple's policies because, after all, they're the ultimate owners of the platform and can set these rules. Google Play store? Yeah, they would probably do the same thing.

Unfortunately, almost everything in the web today consists of some sort of walled garden - exclusivity, after all, can be a very powerful bait in human society. Outside of the "app stores," the top websites in the world are all walled gardens too: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, pretty much every large website and aggregator in the web does it. And users are not even aware of this, since they can always create as many accounts needed there for "free."

This is the best explanation as to why Walled Gardens experience such huge popularity, and why almost everyone is blind to their problems. As privacy and freedom-conscious users, there is one best thing we can do against them: avoid.

Workarounds and alternatives

The best alternatives are no doubt using services that are not walled gardens in first place. When content has to be hosted somewhere, opt for things that can federate, that is, be accessible across multiple other platforms, instead of only a single site. A great example of federation is email - different platforms can send and receive emails to each other transparently.

And in 2020, this concept has expanded beautifully, with federated social networks, messaging platforms, audio and video calling and file sharing platforms easily available and easy to use. Federation takes the walled garden concept and flips it around, keeping freedom first. Don't like the rules of given platform? Host your own!

The choice of hardware you're using is important, however, and as a general rule, mobile devices are more limited in hosting options (that's because their OSes are generally limited in terms of freedom), but you can still have some choice. If you use Android, there is a federated App Store: F-Droid. Currently not many repositores besides the main F-Droid one are available, but the developers make it clear: anyone can host an F-Droid repo and make software available for other users. Now whether or not the protonmail devs will actually include them, is anyone's bet.

Still, this happening illustrates well what the dangers of a silent walled garden are to a culture that embraces and breathes Freedom of culture. It has not been the first time Apple or another "gardener" has made such movements and threats against a software developer, and probably won't be the last. Prevention is the best remedy - and avoiding it is the best way.

Update: yikes, looks like it has happened as well in googleland - K-9 Mail removed from Google Play Store due 'ambiguous' description.

Good thing I never use the Play store, and get all my software from F-Droid anyway.

Last updated on 10/13/20