mobile and control

The nytimes allows you to read only 20 articles a month by direct browsing (unlimited for articles you follow from links from another site, presumably implemented by checking the http referer).

It is quite easy for a user to get around this. For instance, with a simple javascript bookmarklet that deletes or modifies the cookies the site uses to track how many views you’ve had.

Being a programmer, I started thinking of ways the nytimes site could try defend against this. Right now it has no defenses at all. I thought of possible defenses that would at least require much more complicated javascript, and possibly ways that would require an actual browser plugin (say, to modify an spoof the Referer header) to defeat.

The nytimes doesn’t seem too interested in this game of cat and mouse, their defenses haven’t changed much since it was deployed. Perhaps because it’s enough that many/most users are ‘honest’, and because they realize that unless they change their usage policies to be much more locked down (perhaps requiring a login to view any articles at all, if not ending the lack of limits from external referrers), it will always be possible to defeat.

Mobile lockdown

But then I also thought of iOS.  I haven’t checked to see if the bookmarklet approach to delete cookies works on iOS. It is possible to install clickable js bookmarklets on iOS (iPhone or iPad) Mobile Safari, although it’s a pain, requiring either manual copy-paste/editing of JS code, or syncing with your desktop safari bookmarks.  It’s accessible to many fewer users than saving a bookmarklet on a desktop device.

It is not possible to spoof Referer headers on an iPad or an iPhone.

Unlike a desktop computer where you can install any software you want (including, say,  an open source browser with a feature to spoof referers, or a browser that takes plugins, and a plugin that does this), on iOS you can only install software approved by Apple.

[Unless you 'jailbreak' your device, which at least temporarily for the moment is not actually illegal (Apple would surely like it to be, does it surprise you that it quite likely would be without the special exemption from the Librarian of Congress?), but is something that typical users won't want to do, for various reasons.]

The App Store rules prohibit any alternate non-Safari/built-in-Webkit browsers.  Apple sometimes approves alternate browsers — only when they use the built in Webkit.  I am confident that part of the approval process for any app that involves a browser component is ensuring that it doesn’t let users do ‘untoward’ things like spoof referer headers or other parts of an http request.

The reasons for these restrictions are not just (or even mostly) about a consistent UI experience. They are about making sure websites that want to have DRM-like restrictions like the nytimes (or netflix, or hulu), have those restrictions be airtight on the iOS.  (These restrictions implemented by a website may or may not technically be ‘DRM’, under the DMCA etc. The actual implementation by the website probably is not, although it serves the same ends as DRM. The restrictions on the device itself or it’s built in software to try to keep you from an end-run around the website’s implementation probably would count as DRM, thus the LoC’s specific exemption for jailbreaking your phone).

The nytimes may or may not have yet implemented paywall protection that is impossible to get around on an iPhone.  But hulu already has. You can’t watch hulu on an iPhone for free, although you can on a desktop.  If the iPhone were a platform that gave users control, it would be easy to install a browser or browser plugin that hid from the hulu servers the fact that it was an iPhone.

But instead, the iPhone is a platform where users can only install software that Apple approves, and Apple’s policies and approval processes are in part designed to protect and enforce content provide restrictions.  Note that not all content owner technical restrictions simply enforce the law — DRM keeps users from doing things that would be legal, for fair use or other reasons, too. 

A future where most people have a mobile device as their main or only web browsing computer seems quite plausible.  If the iOS ‘closed-shop’ platform model becomes prevalent (as also seems quite plausible, as it’s been quite succesful — and I wouldn’t be shocked to see larger form factor non-mobile OSs adopt this model too, perhaps the Apple desktop app store is an exploratory shot) — This could be the end of the era where computer owners have the freedom to install whatever they want on their computers, and the beginning of an era where computer owners can only install what the platform vendors say they can install.  And their permission to install will be subject to their own business models and interests, and the business models and interests of their business partners.  This is not a welcome course.

(Note the paucity of open source software on the iOS app store — can anyone find me any examples?  I don’t think the app store rules actually prohibit open source, but the nature of the ecosystem discourages it or makes it less attractive to developers for several reasons. It’s pretty difficult to hack on a fork of an open source project for iOS, let alone distribute your mods to others.)

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