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Apple - Judge, Jury and Executioner?

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David Silversmith
David Silversmith

The last century has seen the rise of new forms of media and right behind each new media format marched the censors.  What products can you advertise on TV and radio?  What body parts can you show?  What words can you say?  The censorship reached the point where censorship did not follow the iPhone - it was introduced alongside the iPhone!

Apple is somewhat unique in that one company is the censor.  Censorship has and in many part of the world is still controlled by governments.  For some medium, like movie ratings, you have a voluntary system operated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and then copied/used well beyond the boundaries of America.  The computer game industry followed this approach with the The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings.

In 2008, Apple opened the iPhone to application developers with one big controlling limitation.  Apple's own App Store is the only way to mass-distribute an application for the iPhone OS. You cannot sell or give away your application to the public, except through Apple.  Thus, if Apple bans an application from their App Store they effectively kill the application. 

True there is a back door for users who are willing to “jailbreak” their device by disabling the device's built-in restrictions where it only runs software approved by Apple. However, this voids the device's warranty so you can't get support from Apple for it anymore.  Plus, any future software updates from Apple can cause problems on jailbroken devices.  So once you jailbreak a device - you have essentially limited the future usability of the device. 

So what has Apple censored so far?  It is indeed an interesting lot of applications: 

Digital Rights Protection - Drivetrain and Trackr were products that allowed you to use the Apple device as a remote control for Torrent.  Apple declared, in an email to Drivetrain, "that this category of applications is often used for the purpose of infringing third party rights. We have chosen to not publish this type of application to the App Store.”  

Objectionable Content - Perhaps the best or worst example (I'm not sure which adjective to use here) was the Baby Shaker - which was at first approved by Apple.  A “game” that challenged you to put up with a crying baby for as long as possible before shaking the iPhone (i.e., the baby) to quiet it—whereupon two red Xs would appear over the baby's eyes, indicating that the baby is now dead.  Another banned application was Slasher which showed a picture of a knife, and if you shook the device, it played a scream. 

There have also been some "oops" moments for the censors.  Eucalyptus is a book reader. The “inappropriate sexual content” that got it shut down is a translation of the Kama Sutra book. Eucalyptus does not even contain the Kama Sutra; it just provides an interface for obtaining it (and various other books) over the Internet. The developer agreed to block the book, but before that happened he received a phone call from someone at Apple, and Eucalyptus is now available, without filtering. 

Copyright Infringement - While Apple is the censor, the gatekeeper - other companies have asked their lawyers to knock on Apple's door.  The Tetris company has asked for the removal of several applications which they claimed were infringing on their intellectual property. And just recently, after Cartier filed a lawsuit, Apple removed two iPhone applications from its App Store that allegedly infringed on the trademark of Cartier International. 

Competition - Podcaster got to be the first app that was rejected for competing with one of Apple's own applications - iTunes.  Though, since then other applications like MailWrangler have fallen to that fate.  Apple is one of hundreds of cell phone and MP3 makers - so it's hard to say that Apple is stopping competition - they are just stopping competition in their own store which seems pretty darn reasonable. 

For each of these incidents, you have folks in favor and folks opposed as is common with any type of censorship.  Incident's like the Baby Shaker release and then removal certainly raised questions about how Apple screens applications for sale and whether governments or some other group needs to provide oversight.  But for now, Apple remains the judge, the jury and the executioner - and their inexperience with each role has created some interesting discussion.


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