A closer look at the social consequences of banned apps from Apple's App Store.
This week readers of the comic book series Saga learned that issue 12 would not be available through Apple's iTunes Store, even though the first 11 entries had been. In a written statement on publisher Image Comics' Tumblr page, Saga's co-author Brian K. Vaughan claimed the issue had been banned from Apple's digital distribution service because of "two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex." After much criticism and outcry the company responsible for the app through which Image Comics distributes its works, Comixology, admitted that it had prevented the issue from being published not Apple. "Based on our understanding of [Apple's] policies, we believed the Saga #12 could not be made available in our app," David Steinberger, the company's CEO and co-founder, wrote. After being contacted by Apple, Steinberger admitted his company's interpretation of Apple's policy was wrong and the issue was suitable for publication after all and would be made available again shortly.
There is no rationalizing Apple's behavior on the app store, it is an open and unapologetic censor using the most parochial standards to determine what is and isn't appropriate.
Apple has a longstanding discomfort with sexuality and politics in apps. While individuals are mostly unencumbered in the company's self-publishing platform iBookstore, the App Store subjects users to much tighter controls, without an outright ban on sexual nudity while heavily dissuading those who want to use interactivity to engage controversial subjects like religion or ongoing military actions. "We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate," Apple says in its App Store policy note, "If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store."
Apple has banned a bizarre range of apps based on content alone. Last year, the company rejected an app developed by NYU student Josh Begley that charted U.S. drone strikes based on regularly updated information tracked by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. There was also Sweatshop, a game that had players controlling a factory where there success in each level was measured in part by how many workers were killed or injured during a particular shift. Playboy's app was rejected for the magazine's nudity. A WikiLeaks app was removed after three days of availability on the store. A political game about the ongoing civil war in Syria was also rejected.
There is no rationalizing Apple's behavior on the App Store, it is an open and unapologetic censor using the most parochial standards to determine what is and isn't appropriate. When you buy your way into Apple's technological ecosystem, you're paying to have blinders installed, barely perceptible though they may be. The existence of censorship is part of what allows us to think of the App Store as an "ecosystem" in the first place, an environment with a particular structure and norms that must be adapted to. If we accept that such an environment needs creating, then we have no choice but to accept the role of an authority in setting its basic standards. And in most cases we are happy to have an authority there, some altar to lay our resentments before in hopes that our good faith will merit a reprieve, a redefinition of the terms under which we have all agreed to consume content.
The implication of Apple's enumerated aversions reflect on their users as much as them. Their taboos are those subjects most likely to make us fight, to provoke some constituent within the happy little meadow of touchscreen pastimes into lashing out at another. And in many ways, our fights have gotten worse in recent years. Fifty years ago, profound philosophical disagreements were the prompt for smokey dialectic within the media. We seem to have slid back from William F. Buckley's maw-licking encounters with Huey Newton and Noam Chomsky on Firing Line to an era of sequestration, where people who have different philosophies are not interested in confrontation and synthesis, but attacking and destroying one another from afar, using differences of opinion as the basis for petitioning someone lose their job, their position in society, their ability to support themselves.
We infer the worst of one another, and come loaded for maximum social castigation. The intensification of animosity that feels at times like pre-violence, the withdrawal from public engagement followed by vacuum-sealed rhetoric that feels preparatory to some still worse conflict. More than anything else, Apple is in the conflict avoidance industry, and every instance of its censorious parochialism agitates us most when we realize it is removing things that we'd most like to fight over. And paradoxically, the more censorious companies like Apple become—so powerful that companies expect to be rejected even when it turns our their content was perfectly acceptable—the more necessary fighting begins to seem, as all of the platforms for rhetorical confrontation seem to be closing themselves off.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.