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Communications of the ACM


Whose Smartphone Is It?

giant cellphones tower over buildings and people, illustration

Credit: Denis Cristo

On May 27, 2020, in the French National Assembly, Cédric O, the French Secretary of State for Digital Economy, forcibly expressed his government's frustration with Apple and Google in terms more appropriate to a cold war confrontation between superpowers. He noted that France and the U.K. were the two European countries building COVID-19 contact-tracing apps without these tech giants' assistance. These countries were also the only two European countries with nuclear weapons, the "acme of national sovereignty."a

The frustration of a modern state, unable to respond to the most severe public health crisis in a century because of two private companies' decisions, should give us all pause. Apple and Google have complete and unquestionable control over the computer in your pocket and are not shy about exercising it. It is time to do something about it.


Vlad Didenko

The basic question the article does not come close to is whom the general public may possibly trust more on an ongoing basis - governments or companies. "Trust" as a word does not even come up in the text. If the public trusts companies then there is a chance that governments will do the job and keep companies in check. Maybe. Yet if the trust is in governments, then there is no, or much less available, recourse. And it would be an insanity to allow a stew of governments to extend and adjust a privacy-sensitive protocol. So COVID applications and commerce vs govt control is a poor example of a real problem.

That is the question raised about the control. Governments may indeed facilitate wider competition and dictate the level of support and spec sharing required from companies. Right to repair, AppStore limitations, and similar issues come to mind. And yes, privacy regulations. Governments are failing to address the populace's needs in most of those issues. Companies do what they are good at and created for. Governments do not.

COVID-19 protocol is just a poor example of it.

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