Biting the Forbidden Fruit

Things have been getting sexy for Apple lately, and not in a good way.

There has long been a class of malware in the Windows world called “ransomware”. Once it finds its way onto a computer, it blocks functionality or encrypts data and then demands money.

Recently, this type of evil has made its way to the Mac in the form of a JavaScript program that takes over the Safari browser. It displays a web page that claims the FBI has been monitoring your computer use and has detected that “You have been viewing or distributing prohibited Pornographic content (Child Porno photos and etc were found on your computer).” The code prevents you from leaving the page until you fork over a “release fee” of $300. It also uses Safari’s ability to reload a page if the browser crashes to forcibly reload the lock page if you force-close Safari.

Other claimed violations in the warning message include violations of copyright and, amusingly enough, “your PC may be infected by malware”.

No word on whether paying the ransom actually results in returning control of your browser to you. Fortunately, you can escape very simply without paying the ransom, but you will lose your browsing history, passwords, and other browser data.

So on the one hand, we have Mac users being falsely accused of possessing kiddy porn and being given the option of paying a small “fine” to sweep it under the rug. Meanwhile, Apple itself is being sued for making pornography available.

The International Business Times is reporting that a man is blaming his porn addiction on his MacBook, and is suing Apple. Among his demands are that Apple include a porn filter on every device they make that has the ability to display pornography and to require users to read and agree to a consumer notice about the evils of pornography in order to turn the filter off.

Reports indicate that the plaintiff, a lawyer, has been barred from practicing law due to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome-related mental illness, which could certainly explain some of the more… interesting claims made in the suit. Many people are pointing to the claim that Apple is harming the economy buy driving sex shops out of business as an indication of the plaintiff’s mental illness. Personally, I think a better example is the claim that directly equates Apple’s failure to provide porn filters as the cause of (among other things) ADHD and thrill seeking to the U.S. Government’s failure to invade Afghanistan as the cause of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

Contrary to what Trekkie Monster would have you believe, the Internet is not just for porn. Why, I’ve used my iPad for as much as five minutes at a time without seeing any pornography!

Ahem.

More seriously, the plaintiff’s suit would also require Apple to proactively seek out sites specializing in pornography and work with the FBI to shut them down. An interesting notion: privatization of the determination of what constitutes “pornography” (Mr. Sevier’s complaint helpfully provides a definition: “any picture, photograph, drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, or similar visual representation or image of a person or a portion of the human body, which depicts nudity, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sadomasochistic abuse, and which is harmful to minors and adult males.”) Apparently women cannot be harmed by such material. But I digress. Other sections of the legal filing make it clear that the last clause is redundant; in Mr. Sevier’s opinion, any depiction of such materials is harmful to adult males (and probably minors as well).

So we’re not just talking about obscenity here, nor are we talking about legal pornography, we’re talking about any depiction of the unclothed body. And apparently anywhere in the world; Mr. Sevier seems to be unaware that the Internet is global, extending far beyond the FBI’s jurisdiction.

*sigh*

I could go on for hours – the complaint is 50 pages long, and I doubt that there’s a single page that doesn’t contain an outrage against common sense.

The problem here is that if the case isn’t thrown out immediately, Apple will be in a difficult position. The publicity they would receive in fighting the suit would do grave harm to their reputation as a “Family Friendly” company. On the other hand, not fighting the suit and adopting even some of Mr. Sevier’s proposed remedies would cost millions of dollars in creating and maintaining a porn filter that wouldn’t work to Mr. Sevier’s standards anyway (a fact that’s been widely acknowledged since at least the turn of the century). And the intermediate position of paying him a settlement to withdraw the suit and go away would subject them to the same negative publicity as fighting and open them to a potential flood of nuisance suits seeking similar settlements.

Will the suit be tossed? I certainly hope so, but I’m not hugely optimistic. It was filed in Tennessee, a state with a history of prosecuting pornography and obscenity cases across state lines (see, for example, the 1994 “Amateur Action BBS” case in which BBS operators in Milpitas, California were charged with distributing obscene materials in Tennessee in part through a dial-up BBS. Let us hope that Apple meets a happier fate than the Thomases did.