Apple patent demonstrates risks in innovation

Smartphones can be an oppressive government's nightmare. Brutal police crackdowns on protests against injustice can be recorded with the pocket-size device and broadcast worldwide.

On the flip side, a smartphone can be used to secretly record intimate moments people would prefer to keep to themselves or to violate copyright by recording a concert. A smartphone ringer that someone forgets to turn off can disturb others during a movie or play.

Apple has patented technology that shows the iPhone maker is troubled by potential copyright and privacy violators, and is at least toying with the idea of letting people other than the smartphone user control the device.

According to the patent, Apple believes concert promoters, theater owners and corporate office managers have a need for technology that broadcasts a signal to turn off an iPhone's camera, ringer, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to prevent criminal or annoying activity. This could all be done without the user's knowledge.

A patent does not mean Apple would make such a product. Nevertheless, civil libertarians would prefer to stay a couple of steps ahead and have raised concerns about allowing others to take control of someone else's smartphone.

Attacking technology that may never be made brings up an interesting question: When, if ever, should technological innovation be stopped and can we anticipate its use before the invention actually hits the market?

Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, has written extensively on the topic. Thierer believes that trying to stifle innovation, even for the noble cause of protecting privacy and civil rights, is a bad idea.

While it is possible to dream up a long list of "boogeyman" scenarios, the reality is we don't know how technology is used until people and businesses actually get it, Thierer says. Trying to prevent wrongs that have not yet occurred can be more damaging to society.

Keeping technology off the market or causing changes too soon can hurt innovation, leading to lower quality goods, slower economic growth and a decline in the overall standard of living. "If you try to plan for every harm and every worst case, then you don't get the benefits from the best case," Thierer told me.

I believe he's right. The debate over Apple's patent shows how trying to protect the privacy and intellectual property rights of one group of people can infringe on the civil rights of others. But the extent to which the rights of either side will be infringed is impossible to determine until the technology is actually used.

So let Apple turn its patent into product, if that is what it decides. Government regulators or the courts can decide later whether restrictions on its use are necessary, after real problems arise.

If someone attending a ballet misses an emergency call because the theater owner disabled all smartphones, then the person should sue. If police or government decide to use the technology, then I can guarantee civil rights organizations will challenge those plans in court.

This is how all technology advances. We never know all possible uses at the start. But letting people's creativity flow is how we fuel progress.

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