Apple has gotten a lot of publicity over the last few days for a patent which many have applauded as supposedly enabling parents to prevent "sexting" by their children. This patent, US. Patent No 7,814,163 enables a user to "control the content of text-based messages sent to or from an administered device." In some embodiments, a message will be blocked if it contains "forbidden content" and in other embodiments the "objectionable content" will simply be removed.
Although Apple sells this technology in the patent by promoting the embodiments which allow parental control of a smartphone or which enable parents to help their children learn Spanish, John Dvorak, writing in PC Magazine, points out the darker side of this patent - the real potential for this technology to be used as a tool of political oppression.
Although one can certainly see this technology being used in a business setting -- with companies using their "administrator" privileges to block or censor text messages and emails -- this is at least understandable. If you don't want your emails censored, don't use your company's BlackBerry. A company may very well have a valid business reason for censoring communications on company-owned devices -- from combatting corporate espionage to preventing an HR disaster from "sexting" by adults who should know better.
However, once a country like Iran, China or Saudi Arabia decides that it wants to use a "super-administrator" privilege to simply block all political communications it does not like, this just becomes another way for such authoritarian regimes to shut down one of the few ways insurgents have to get their word out. As Dvorak notes, in many such countries, enabling "administrator control" by the government will quickly become a condition for selling these mobile devices at all.
What is tragic here, of course, is that this represents yet another surrender by a company who wants to be thought of as "cool" to the tyrants of the world just to make a buck [see, of course Google's capitulation to China]. In this case, Apple is not just knuckling under to pressure it is inventing a tool for governments to silence dissent. But, just look at the market for iPhones!
To bring it home, if this technology were widely available today, would you be able to text the phrase "Liu Xiaobo" in China? I think you know the answer to that one.