Why Apple’s Moral Censorship is Doomed

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Free-speech campaigners are complaining that Apple is censoring content. The company’s stance has led to the banning of satirical works and a comic book version of James Joyce’s Ulysses which featured hand-drawn nudity. (Incidentally, the original book was banned as obscene in the US and UK until courts eventually accepted the work in the 1930s.)

There’s no doubt that Apple are creating glorious products. They are a successful business and are protecting their commercial interests. If you want an application or music on your iPhone, you must purchase it from Apple. It’s a fantastic model which few have replicated in the business world. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to buy an iPhone.

Unfortunately, this hard-nosed business concept conflicts with Apple’s tree-hugging hippy-friendly image. Steve Jobs can’t say he’s “protecting business interests” because he doesn’t want Apple to be seen as another boring IT supplier in the mold of IBM or Microsoft. Instead, Apple have embarked on a moral crusade. They’re “protecting customers” from the evils of bad applications, Flash, offensive content and pornography.

(Of course, if they really want to protect users, Apple should remove Safari or have all internet access routed through a filtering proxy server which blocks offensive content. Perhaps they will?)

Apple has appointed itself as your moral guardian so it must censor content. That’s a risk:

  1. How can any commercial company make an unbiased decision about what is or isn’t in your interest?
  2. The dividing line between art, pornography, benign content and offensive text is blurred and highly subjective. Yet Apple must make consistent black and white decisions every day.
  3. Banned apps and content receive far more publicity than those which are accepted. It can reflect badly on Apple and developers could even start using it to their advantage. For example, why not knock-up an iPhone version of your existing web/desktop application which you know will be banned? The story will raise the profile of your company at Apple’s expense.
  4. However, it’s the applications and content Apple accept which could cause the biggest problems. An approved product is rubber-stamped as being of high-quality and containing no dubious content. It’s a huge undertaking and what if I stumble across something which offends me? Does that mean Apple has failed? Can I claim a refund? Can I sue the company?

It’s easy for Apple to manage a few hundred thousand applications while the mobile market is relatively small. But it’s growing fast — how will Apple cope when it’s doubled or tripled?

However, it’s the commercial cost that will ultimately end Apple’s “honorable” intentions. The vast majority of applications in the App Store never make a profit, yet Apple must pay someone to thoroughly check every submission. That cost will grow indefinitely if an application’s acceptance or rejection incurs legal complications.

Censorship is a massive cost for any company and Microsoft should take note (they’re planning similar moralistic rules for Windows 7 Phone apps). It might take a few court cases, but I doubt it has a viable long-term commercial future at Apple.

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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