If a company or organization is going to limit speech lawfully—a social network that bans hate speech, for example, or a concert venue that forbids photography—it should at least solicit “meaningful informed consent” from their patrons, Rowland says.
In a world with informed consent, Facebook users would explicitly be told about limits on what they post on the social network before they sign up for an account, and concertgoers would know before buying tickets what they can and can’t do with their phones—and how any restrictions will be enforced.
Fans that slip their phone into a Yondr case, for example, know exactly what they’re getting into, and are actively consenting to giving up Snapchat for two hours in exchange for a Lumineers show. But it’s less likely that every person who files through a venue’s door would be given the chance to individually consent to use of a technology that remotely shuts down a key feature of their smartphones.
For it to be reliable, camera-blocking technology would have to be hard to circumvent. If the technology relied on a GPS signal to determine whether a device is in a no-recoding zone, the user could turn off the GPS radio on his or her phone to get around the restriction. An infrared signal, however, would be nearly impossible to avoid, since the very same sensor that would receive the signal—your camera—is the sensor you’d need to use to take a photo.
And if a crisis were to arise in the venue, having a working smartphone camera could be essential. In the Bataclan concert hall in Paris last year, a shaky video helped the world piece together what happened when three gunmen stormed in during a show, began firing into the crowd, and took a group of survivors hostage for hours. Without a way to override a technological ban on recording, an emergency situation could end up going undocumented.
This is perhaps the most extreme thought experiment that considers a future where Apple’s patent sees the light of day. There’s a less nefarious-seeming outcome than a technology that outright shuts down your camera, though, and given recent developments, it’s starting to look a little more realistic.
Last month, Amazon offered its Prime customers big discounts on a pair of Android smartphones—but the offer came with a catch. In exchange for the price drop, users of the cut-rate Androids would occasionally see ads on their lockscreens, that holiest of digital real estate. The phones also would come loaded up with Amazon software.
Is that a worthwhile trade-off? The Amazon offer is really just an extension of the business model that’s already at the core of the internet economy: People are willing to be marketed to in order to get free or cheap things. (Think Facebook.) But what if, instead of ads on the lockscreen, a cheap or free smartphone would paste ads onto your photos? Perhaps you could hide camera ads for 30 minutes by watching a short video, or tweeting about a product. Maybe the ads would disappear if your photo included an approved item, like a particular brand of watch or a bottle of hand lotion. The technology to do this certainly exists. But would it violate free-speech rights?