Quote from article on AOL/Time Warner merger

Thoughts on censorship

Blogged on 14 September 2010

Apple has published, for the first time, the guidelines according to which it approves or rejects apps submitted to be made available to users of its iOS devices (the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch). The document is still accessible only to registered developers, but copies are already proliferating on the web, so everyone can get a look. Which is nice, because when you buy a device at least partly for its ability to run apps, you have a legitimate interest in knowing what kinds of apps are and aren’t likely to be released.

Some clauses appeal to rather vague notions of quality, which is OK with me. As a user, I expect Apple to reject apps that simply aren’t very good, whether or not they infringe any preset prohibition, because I don’t want an App Store full of crap. And as a publisher, I’m not too worried about getting apps rejected for quality, because I don’t plan to submit any rubbish.

I was worried about the refusal to approve apps created using Adobe’s Flash Packager, because that’s potentially a good way for people like me to produce magazine-style apps without having to become programmers just to add simple bits of user interface that could easily be done within Adobe’s design tools; but in the new guidelines, that overly precious decision has been reversed.

What does concern me, no less now than before, is Apple’s attitude to controversial content, which is at best muddled and at worst a threat to the freedom of the media.

Real freedom means being able to publish in the prevailing forms of mass communication

Before you make a face and wonder rhetorically whether preventing something from being published on the iPad is really the same as burning the presses and stringing up the proprietor, think harder. You could argue that we have freedom of expression as long as we can freely write our thoughts on a piece of paper, seal it in an envelope and pass it to our neighbour under cover of darkness. But that’s a pretty poor kind of freedom. Real freedom means being able to publish whatever we want, within reason, in the prevailing forms of mass communication.

And, in case you hadn’t noticed, printed newspapers and magazines aren’t prevailing quite like they used to. Digital seems to be doing most of the prevailing. The only thing holding it back is uncertainty about how to monetise it. But the App Store gives publishers an easy way to take payments from users, and users seem pretty keen to hand over their money for apps. So the latest iOS devices, with their high-resolution screens, are a natural outlet, not only for digital versions of existing publications, but also for new publications that will be created specifically for this platform.

What’s allowed or not allowed by Apple has a direct impact on what will and won’t be said and seen in this medium, and that in turn will increasingly affect the balance and scope of our media as a whole. That’s why it’s worth questioning.

“We view Apps different”

Why does Apple censor apps at all? The second paragraph of the introduction to the newly published guidelines explains:

We view Apps different than [sic] books or songs, which we do not curate.

Now, Apple was never likely to ‘curate’ music. When launching iTunes, it needed to get all the tracks it could from all the distributors it could, not limit content by censoring it. Besides, if the ‘Parental Advisory’ system was good enough for record shops, it would have been hard to explain why it wasn’t good enough for iTunes.

Rejecting books would attract criticism. Apps are different, apparently

Similar practicalities apply to books. Apple’s newly launched iBooks service faces, once again, an initial struggle to attract publishers. (To list a few titles I was looking for in the past few days, Tony Blair’s book isn’t there; nor is Brian Cox’s; nor are any of Stieg Larsson’s; all are on Amazon Kindle.) The last thing it needs is censorship. Of course, rejecting controversial books would also attract headline-friendly criticism: what were those things Nazis used to burn?

But apps are different, apparently. I think the difference is that when you say ‘apps’, people think of interactive programs that either serve some practical purpose or are fun. In this context, any content that causes offence is more likely to be trivial than controversial. As Apple bluntly puts it:

We don’t need any more Fart apps.

No argument there. Some of us weren’t clear why we needed the original Fart apps. For example, Animal Farts, co-created by Phillip Shoemaker, who’s now director of applications technology at Apple, and one of the people responsible for deciding how the App Store works. Hmm.

Nor do we need apps that call up pages of hardcore porn. Hardcore porn has always been limited to certain outlets, and there are plenty of places for iOS users to find it via Safari. I don’t think many people would have a problem with Apple deciding that it just prefers not to go there.

But I’m not so sure about this blanket justification:

We have lots of kids downloading lots of apps, and parental controls don’t work unless the parents set them up (many don’t). So know that we’re keeping an eye out for the kids.

“Keeping an eye out for the kids”

Firstly, the way the parental controls work is up to Apple; they could easily be set to exclude at least 18+ rated content by default, but they’re not. Wouldn’t that be one way of keeping an eye out for the kids? Rather than, say, by displaying a parental warning when users download a newspaper app, because future editions of the newspaper might contain something scary; but not every newspaper app, just an apparently random selection. That’s not really keeping an eye out for anyone.

Secondly, to limit the entire catalogue of iOS apps to those that won’t frighten the horses proletariat children would be egregiously restrictive. The family-friendly Nintendo DS, for example, doesn’t shun the likes of Resident Evil: Deadly Silence or Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Why should Apple’s rival platform?

Cosmo’s Sex Position of the Day isn’t I Spit on Your Grave, but it’s not appropriate for kids

Oh, wait: it doesn’t. GTA CTW has just come out for iPad. Despite the conservative hoo-hah about the GTA series, CTW barely registers on the sex and violence scale by today’s standards, but it does feature plenty of casual slaughter, short skirts and what its characters would probably call ‘cussing’. Similarly, Cosmo’s Sex Position of the Day app isn’t exactly I Spit on Your Grave, but it’s clearly not appropriate for kids.

It’s been suggested that products like these get approved because they’re from big-name media owners that Apple wants to play with, while similar content from smaller developers is rejected. I’m sure there’s some truth in that. Since big players tend to make quality products, Apple could spin this as no more than a variant of the traditional censor’s ‘artistic merit’ test: sex and violence are OK if they’re tastefully done and essential to the plot.

But the same commercial focus no doubt explains, for example, why “Contests, sweepstakes, lotteries, and raffles” are allowed in apps, with a few basic provisos (for example, they must be legal, though it doesn’t say in what jurisdiction); and why Apple not only condones, but rather ickily courts ‘freemium’ scammers like Zynga. I’d rather eschew the opportunity to be fleeced, especially on behalf of the kids I keep an eye out for, but there you go.

“Write a book”

Apple goes on to play the ‘There’s a time and a place’ card, otherwise known as ‘Sure, do it, but not in this forum’:

If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.

We’ve already discussed how censoring just one part of the media that you happen to control is still censoring the media, especially when it’s a popular and significant part. Here again, there’s also blatant inconsistency to contend with.

When Christopher Hitchens wanted to criticise a religion – religion in general, in fact – he did write a book. It’s not available on iBooks, but he also writes regularly on the same theme in other publications, such as Vanity Fair magazine. The latest issue of which I’m currently reading on my iPad in the Vanity Fair app. According to Apple’s guidelines, Hitchens’ article shouldn’t be in it. But, thank God (see what I did there?), it is.

Why, then, are the rest of us told this isn’t the right place for such stuff?

“Write a book” is typical of Apple’s intellectual carelessness

The exhortation to “write a book” is typical of Apple’s intellectual carelessness. If ‘book’ refers to a bunch of written pages bound together and delivered physically to the reader, well, nobody ever wrote one of those. Writers record their words in all sorts of different ways, but hardly ever – pace Douglas Adams – by typesetting the actual pages. That’s not what ‘writing a book’ means. For delivery to readers, authors’ scribbles are formatted and reproduced in a distributable medium. As we’ve discussed, iOS devices constitute one of today’s media of choice.

And indeed Apple has already assured us that writings may be distributed uncensored to them – as iBooks. Which will be delivered from the same source to the same device to be accessed by the same user as the apps we’re being told not to make.

Would it matter if free speech on this platform was limited to iBooks? Yes. Magazines and books are different things, published by different organisations. You might think digital formats would erode the distinction, but in many ways they reinforce (or re-enforce) them. E-books are limited to text that’s typeset on the fly by software, which is never likely to be beautiful, and iOS’s surprisingly limited typographical capabilities ensure iBooks are about as far from beautiful as it gets.

Sensual pleasures aside, there’s also functionality we might want to include in a digital book that the iBooks format doesn’t support. That’s why, for example, The Elements, one of the most highly praised books on the iPad, comes as an app, not an iBook. Luckily, The Elements contains nothing likely to cause offence. Must all controversial content be restricted to plain text and still images? Is that really the future of media?

Or is Apple politely excusing itself from the future of media?

“Please brace yourself for rejection”

Apple’s advice to would-be developers is amusingly blunt:

If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.

This is all very well as long as you think of apps as programs, and amateurishness as not working properly or having incompetently designed user interfaces, and how far from the shiny Apple user experience iOS would drift if all the random DIY tat available around the web was allowed in the App Store.

This rejection of the great unwashed sounds uncomfortably elitist

But when you think of apps as a communications medium, this blanket rejection of the great unwashed sounds uncomfortably elitist. Would the publishing world mourn the loss of every zine that “looks like it was cobbled together in a few days” (though, in fact, its untrained makers may have slaved for weeks)? Yes, we would. Apart from anything else, where would we nick our ideas from?

Tellingly, Apple says:

In our experience, users really respond to polish, both in functionality and user interface

Meaning that the buttons should be shiny and they should work. But beyond functionality and user interface, there’s content; and content doesn’t come only from people who are good at polish, or appeal only to people who appreciate it. Besides, once everything is polished, you start craving something that isn’t. (There may be a bigger lesson there for Apple’s future.)

It’s vital to have raw, transgressive, innovative mags that don’t look or feel like the mainstream newsstand glossies. It would be a great shame if the iPad couldn’t provide a new and more accessible platform for them. The HTML5 technologies and skills required to deliver this kind of content on the web are still maturing, so at the moment the only practical way to do it is in an app. What’s wrong with that? The company that started life at the Homebrew Computer Club can surely see the irony.

But apparently not. More worryingly:

Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm[’]s way will be rejected

Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary

That exemption sounds appealingly liberal until you digest ‘professional’. Being a well-established and widely published journalist and editor, and having been paid to write numerous articles that featured politics, satire and/or humour, I suppose I qualify. Do you?

What about someone who’s so devoted to their political satire that they do it without being paid? Or someone who’s involved in politics or journalism but is not a political satirist or humorist by trade?

As a ‘professional’, can Limbaugh release an app consisting entirely of bile against foreigners?

Since Rush Limbaugh is a professional political satirist, can he release an app consisting entirely of bile against immigrants, foreigners, homosexuals and liberals, as long as it isn’t deemed likely to place them in harm’s way? What about publishing a magazine app containing an interview with someone who makes offensive (but not illegal) remarks that are not endorsed by the publisher?

And could ‘mean-spirited’ be any broader?

“What line, you ask?”

Let’s return briefly to that ‘Not in our back yard’ clause. It continues:

If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.

Did we mention Sex Position of the Day? An app entirely devoted to describing sex, and not, believe me, medically. It’s already a book, and Rihanna would probably be up for the song, but the point is, here’s an app that embodies precisely what Apple is telling us not to submit, and it’s already approved. Which is fine – but yet again, the guidelines simply don’t reflect the decisions made.

So much for Apple’s glib appeal to common sense:

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

To write this at all betrays an artless assumption of social homogeneity that’s perhaps unsurprising from a company notoriously disinclined to look outward from its whitebread Silicon Valley eyrie, but it will nonetheless provoke a small wince from any communicator to whom inclusivity has become second nature. Even on the Apple campus, I bet you could throw an iPod shuffle and hit a dozen people who’d draw the line in a dozen different places, depending on where they grew up, what sky pixie their ancestors preferred, and how they feel about their teenage sister getting that job in Vegas.

The iPad goes on sale in China this week. Everybody on board with this line?

In principle, although people might not agree on where they personally would draw the line, they might each be able to guess where Apple would draw it. In practice, good luck with that. Sometimes it’s obvious when you’ve left the line far, far behind, but you could say that of all too many terrible apps that have been approved.

And there are many cases where I really have no idea where the line is. If I was publishing a mainstream glossy magazine that contained a series of provocative nude shots by a leading photographer framed as a satire on 21st Century America, for example, I’d suspect that might be over the line, but I’d sincerely hope it wasn’t; and I don’t know which side the App Store people would put it when they saw it.

The uncertainty will affect what publishers will commission

If publishing on iOS was important to me, that uncertainty might well affect my willingness to commission such features in future editions. After all, if I spend money producing a mag, and the week before publication day I submit it to Apple, and Apple says no, I have nothing to deliver to my subscribers, and no revenue to collect from my advertisers, until I change it and resubmit it. Which is no way to run a business. Thus we segue from disappointment for a few idiots with boobies apps to chilling effects.

* * *

I’m not saying I don’t want Apple to control what’s in the App Store. I like intermediation. It’s a good thing. And I believe Apple means to be sensible about it. After all, the closing section of the App Store guidelines document expresses sentiments that all good publishers will recognise:

Join us in trying to surprise and delight users. Show them their world in innovative ways, and let them interact with it like never before.

But so far, it just isn’t taking the job seriously. What the App Store needs now is an approvals policy unit, backed by a board of external advisers, that can start making sense of the converging media landscape that Apple itself is so deeply involved in creating, yet seems only superficially to understand.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Chris Beveridge 14 September 2010 at 4:26 pm

An interesting thing is how comics are handled when it comes to this. Comixology can only present so many books because they tend to have adult content in some of them. US comics tend to get by okay, but we’re seeing that Japanese comics, even things about very, very tame gay themes, aren’t going to make it through. Whole publishers (mind you, these are large publishers in Japan as well), cannot get their works through an app like Comixology because apparently the individual books have to be approved by apple.

Very displeased with that. Build better safeguards overall, but let the end user decide what is acceptable when it comes to content of app. They’re going to run into this more and more which will get them bad press and headlines.

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