Everyone’s all a-twitter over the so-called “kill switch” found in Google’s first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1. Here’s the thing, though: Not only is it not a big deal — it’s actually a good thing.
The story, in case you haven’t heard, broke this morning when PC World sister publication Computerworld noticed a clause in Google’s Android Market terms of service, linked to the new phone. The line states that if Google finds “a product that violates the developer distribution agreement,” it “retains the right to remotely remove those applications from your device at its sole discretion.” In other words, Google can delete stuff off your phone without your permission. At least, that’s how a lot of people interpreted it.
The Missing Link
That cursory explanation, while not entirely untrue, leaves out one important thing: the fact that the clause states a removal will happen only if a developer violates his agreement. But semantics, as we all know in this week of presidential debating, can be misleading — so I turned to Google for a straight-talking explanation.
“The Android Market is designed so developers can make their applications easily available to users,” a spokesperson tells me. “While we encourage that community aspect, we are also very careful with the safety and security of the user. In limited cases where an application has a malicious intent, we will remove it from the Market and potentially uninstall it from user devices to ensure the safety of the Android Market community.”
The Apple Comparison
Now, you might remember the maker of another unnamed phone, which happens to start with a lowercase “i,” offering a similar explanation when someone found a remote delete function on its device a few months ago. You might also remember that plenty of people weren’t too pleased with that revelation.
Here’s why this one’s different: First of all, Google’s been up-front with its intentions, printing them in the terms of service and openly discussing them. (Apple, in contrast, quietly admitted the existence of its “kill switch” a few days after a hacker happened to find it; there was no prior disclosure.) But, more important, if Google is to succeed in bringing an open platform to a mainstream mobile environment, such a failsafe is needed — and will only be beneficial to the end-user.
With Apple’s App Store, content is carefully controlled — perhaps too much so. With the Android Market, in contrast, its very nature allows anyone to create applications and publish them instantly, without oversight or moderation. That leaves carriers and their users no recourse if a nasty app makes its way onto the network and jeopardizes everyone’s security. It would be irresponsible of Google not to have an option to pull the plug if something malicious were to pop up.
So go about your day, friends, and sleep soundly. Your new Android phone isn’t under a dictator’s rule, with random unexplained killings to come. It’s under a democracy — but, as with any democracy, a well-defined set of laws is needed to keep the community safe.