“So this album just appeared on my iPhone. A free U2 album…that’s cool. But don’t you think that’s a little bit creepy?” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that in the last few weeks. And every time I’ve been completely mystified. It doesn’t seem weird to me at all, but then I guess I understand the abstraction.
In my mind, this was a simple marketing stunt. In order to plump up WWDC Apple wanted to do something really unorthodox. It’s kind of their thing. They’ve worked closely with U2/Bono in the past, so this just makes sense. They bought up enough licenses of U2’s new album (to the tune of $100M) for all the iPhones in North America (roughly 7 million) so they could have one hell of a give away. U2 gets the press for their album that will ensure that every non-iphone user out there will covet it. Really, it seems like a pretty good deal for everyone.
But somehow it went wrong. Apple flipped a switch one morning and every iTunes account associated with an iPhone had a viable license to the album. All they had to do was download. In Apple’s mind, what could be easier. But it became obvious to me that most people don’t realize what an iTunes account is. They think of it as the place on their computer (or device) that holds their music. When they download something from the store, they think it’s like Walmart…they’ve bought it and now its theirs. They think that when they enter their password every time they download something, its for their own protection. What they don’t realize is that iTunes is much closer to the Library (or Netflix, if you’d rather). Despite the rental terms being “for life”, you are still just borrowing from Apple. When you enter your password, you are both authorizing Apple to give you a license and tagging what you buy with your email so that you can’t lend it to others. Apple knows everything in your iTunes account and has access to every last detail: how many times you play each song, what time of day, which songs you skip, which you’ve ‘liked’. And they slice and dice that information in a hundred different ways that would really scare the pants off you. If you find that them being able to flip a switch and give you a free album is weird, you need to start thinking about what else they can do.
I laugh quite regularly when people talk to me about privacy online. The only way to stay private online is to not be online. Everything you use is tracking and counting and monitoring what you do. They take that information and correlate it everywhere they can. They use that information to show you ads, to guess what you’ll do next and to create the future they think you want. Any time I post something online, I don’t worry about whether it’s “just to my friends” because frankly, that’s an illusion anyway. The irony that Songs of Innocence was the album that caused this conversation is striking. Perhaps it should have been titled Songs of Innocence Lost since a few million people lost a tiny bit of their online innocence with every download.