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Pokemon Paranoia Goes Beyond Iran

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It was only a matter of time before some country banned Pokemon Go, the addictive location-based game. Now, Iran has claimed that distinction. Others will surely seek to regulate the augmented-reality game too, for a simple reason: Pokemon Go poses too many questions that do not have satisfactory answers yet. 

Iran may have had some Islam-related reasons to ban Pokemon Go: a fatwa, or religious ruling, was issued against earlier Pokemon games; it rejected, among other things, the basic idea that one could speed up the creatures' mutation to make them more powerful as it hints at evolutionary theory. But Abolhasan Firouzabadi, the country's internet czar, has been quoted as saying security concerns prompted the ban. 

The Israeli Army has also banned Pokemon Go for security reasons. The game, it argued, activates phone cameras and location services, and could betray base locations to someone watching. The U.S. military has gone for softer warnings, only saying the game was "not authorized" in restricted areas. In China, there are concerns -- unofficial at this point, since the game hasn't even been released there -- that it might compromise the security of military installations.

In Russia, the pro-Kremlin website Politonline published a rant about Pokemon Go as a tool for "controlling the world created by a former U.S. State Department employee." (John Hanke, chief executive officer of Niantic, the company that rolled out the game, did work for the U.S. government once). A Russian legislator has suggested the game could also be used to organize a flash mass gathering as a "provocation" for "mass disturbances."

These concerns may be overblown, but they are by no means unfounded on technical grounds. Niantic can indeed make people go where it wants by setting up a Pokemon gym at a specific location or sending a rare Pokemon. It has been able to populate locations with various types of creatures based on their closeness to water and other parameters, so it has a certain amount of control over what Pokemon appear where. Just as Uber has demonstrated the ability to track any client, any other app that uses personalized location tracking -- and identities in the game are based on Google data, arguably the closest tech equivalent to a passport -- can, in theory, do the same. 

It's natural to disbelieve scenarios that look like something from a cheap dystopia. Yet Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doesn't tape over his laptop camera for nothing. If you have a reason to suspect somebody might be after you -- billionaire Zuckerberg does, and so certainly do some militaries and repressive governments -- it's reasonable to be doubly paranoid. 

The problem with Pokemon Go isn't limited to countries as contemptuous of human rights as Iran, Russia and China. On Tuesday, a sort of ultimatum runs out for the game, put forward by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations. It demands that Niantic remove 15 rules from its user agreement because they violate German privacy law, and says it will sue if the rules stay. For example, the agreement says a player can only have legal recourse in the form of "binding, individual arbitration," not a class-action suit or a jury trial.

Consumer advocates are also worried the game cannot be played anonymously. Why exactly does Niantic need a player's identity from Google or a social network? If the monetization model is to sell various virtual items, as the user agreement appears to suggest, or if it's advertising-based, that's not necessary. Does Niantic plan to sell the data it collects?

There also appear to be clashes with EU contract law. 

All of these concerns aren't limited to Pokemon Go. It's only a harbinger of a soon-to-come augmented reality revolution: Phones -- at least Android ones -- will soon hold numerous apps that can change the way we experience physical locations, ranging from our own homes to museums and restaurants. They will all make it possible to track or direct us, as well as gather our personal data. True, many apps already do that, but ones that combine location with filming capabilities and identification are especially troubling.

As usual, a U.S.-based disruptor is offering an exciting technology to the rest of the world -- but isn't worried about the consequences. That's OK during the initial rollout, but as the experience of Uber and Airbnb shows, regulation and bans come quickly on the heels of that first rush of excitement. One could see it as meddlesome governments and lawyers clipping the wings of a fairytale innovation -- or as concerned citizens and officials rushing to stop the dystopia. Either way, disruptors aren't going to have an easy ride, even outside places like Iran.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net