Apple, AT&T, and the Rush to Judgment
Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on August 22, 2009
Back in July, when Apple rejected the iPhone Google Voice from the iTunes App Store, the tech world instantly came to the conclusion that AT&T, iPhone’s exclusive U.S. carrier, made them do it.
In The New York Times, David Pogue blamed AT&T-Apple collusion for the “heavy-handed, Soviet information-control style.”
On TechCrunch, Jason Kincaid wrote: “Of course, it’s not hard to guess who’s behind the restriction: our old friend AT&T.” Perhaps strangest of all was a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Andy Kessler that charged: “How could AT&T not object? AT&T clings to the old business of charging for voice calls in minutes.” The article did not help its case by mischaracterizing how Google Voice works (it does not divert voice calls to the Internet) and by saying that Verizon Wireless, rather than Sprint, is the exclusive carrier for the Palm Pre.
What everyone believed, however, is not what happened. On Aug. 21, the FCC released responses from Apple, AT&T, and Google to its inquiry about the incident. Apple and AT&T agreed that the decisions regarding Google Voice were Apple’s alone. Google response on this point was redacted from the public version at Google’s insistence.
OK, I can hear the conspiracy theorists saying: "AT&T is lying and Apple is lying to protect its partner." Not very likely. AT&T is as savvy as any company on the planet about survival in Washington and one thing a highly regulated company does not do is lie to its primary regulator, especially in an matter where there is likely to be a paper (or e-mail) trail and where it has little to gain and much to lose by deceiving the agency. It's not clear that the FCC could actually do anything to AT&T if it had blocked Google Voice, making it less likely the company would run the risk of lying about this.
Apple, by the way, laid out a sort of reasonable case for keeping Google Voice out of the iTunes Store (they haven't rejected it, they claim--not very convincingly--but are still studying it.) I don't agree with Apple's position that its customers must be protected from apps that duplicate or somehow change core functions of the iPhone, but it is their product to manage as they see fit. (For a thoughtful discussion of this issue, I recommend Harry McCracken's "Whose iPhone Is It Anyway?"
In the end, the incident may say more about journalism, traditional or otherwise, than it does about Apple, AT&T, or Google. We journalists are a skeptical, even cynical, bunch by inclination. There was probable cause to believe in AT&T's culpability. But probable cause is grounds for further investigation, not for leaping to conclusions. Journalism is changing drastically, but the rules of fairness remain the same.