On Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 22, 1984, Apple ran one of the most famous TV advertisements of all time. It opened with a gray theater full of people with shaved heads, wearing gray jumpsuits, staring expressionlessly at a large screen. From the screen, an Orwellian “Big Brother” intoned, “We are one people, one whim, one resolve, one course. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we shall bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail.”
As he spoke, a blond woman ran into the theater, bearing a sledgehammer. She threw it at the screen, and the screen exploded. An off-camera voice declared, “On Jan. 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Today, more than two decades later, the message remains tremendously powerful: Innovative technology in the hands of brave people can free us all from tyranny.
Fifteen years later, in the fall of 2009, Apple officially launched the iPhone in China in partnership with a domestic mobile carrier, China Unicom. As a condition for entry into the Chinese market, Apple had to agree to the Chinese government’s censorship criteria in vetting the content of all iPhone apps available for download on devices sold in mainland China. (Most apps are created by independent developers— individuals, companies, or organizations—and then submitted to Apple for approval and inclusion in its app store.) On Apple’s special store for the Chinese market, apps related to the Dalai Lama are censored, as is one containing information about the exiled Uighur dissident leader Rebiya Kadeer. Apple similarly censors apps for iPads sold in China. So much for that revolutionary, Big Brother-destroying Super Bowl ad. Apple seems quite willing to accommodate Big Brother’s demands for the sake of market access.
Rebecca MacKinnon, from an excerpt on Slate of her new book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.