Why Apple’s Moral Censorship is Doomed

By Craig Buckler
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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.

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  • Jeff

    You assume that Apple’s online marketplace has to play by the same rules as the web.

    Apple exercises censorship every day in their retail stores by choosing which software they’ll put on their shelves. It’s no different in an online marketplace.

    They shouldn’t have to let everyone through the door. If you want porn, well, there’s an app for that: Safari.

    • It’s a massively different marketplace! Apple’s retail stores sell what — a few thousand items — most of which are created by Apple. The App Store is open to anyone if they abide with Apple’s rules.

      “If you want porn, well, there’s an app for that: Safari.”

      Exactly. They claim to be moral guardians, so why haven’t they banned or restricted net access?

      • Jeff

        But they have a right to decide what items make it to the shelves in their marketplace, physical and digital alike.

        I don’t think Apple is taking a “moral guardian” stance, so much as they are choosing as a company the items from which they glean profitability. They have that right.

        Safari is a gateway to a public domain. To restrict content in that realm would be acting in an realm where they have no authority.

        I fail to see how they have an obligation to include everything under the sun.

        Is Walmart obligated to sell pornography?

      • Webchain

        No, Jeff is correct. Both have the software/hardware Apple allows in them. It’s their call. It’s actually MASSIVELY THE SAME!

  • jazzdrive3

    Um…you don’t need to buy music from iTunes to get music on your iPod. Any mp3 will do just fine. And you can get that from any CD in your collection.

  • tiggsy

    It’s only a short term problem, because it’s likely that Android phones will be the main player before long

    • I’m not convinced. iPhones are ubiquitous and iPads are getting there. The devices are popular even though Apple sells them at a premium. Many other smartphone vendors give them away with mobile tariffs — and they still have relatively low numbers in comparison.

      Apple deserve that success, but their control over related markets could be of concern.

      • EastCoast

        “Many other smartphone vendors give them away with mobile tariffs — and they still have relatively low numbers in comparison.”

        Not really, check the gartner survey or any other smartphone sales stats. e.g Nokia 35% versus apple 3% behind another 6 manufacturers.

      • Yes, the statistics conflict somewhat. It depends on your definition of a smartphone — I have a Nokia touchscreen phone on which you can install and run apps, but it’s not in the same league as an iPhone.

  • Nathan

    I think they are smart to have some standards for their brand and community. Other media outlets make judgment calls about what advertisements and content to accept. You won’t be seeing much full frontal nudity on prime time broadcast TV either.

    • There’s plenty of nudity (real, not hand-drawn), satire and free-speech on TV. Channels won’t broadcast certain content but, again, they’re selecting the “best” programmes from relatively small selection. Apple have to test hundreds of thousands of applications, most of which will never make any money. How can it be commercially viable?

      • webchain

        Read what he said…

        “You won’t be seeing much full frontal nudity on prime time broadcast TV either.”

        He said it because you won’t. Broadcast TV, at least in the U.S. is censored. There have been shows from time to time that display extra warning to show violence or riskier content. But on a whole. The statement is true.

  • webchain

    This article is riddled with inaccuracies and half truths.

    “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.”

    They did orginally ban this work, but then realized they were wrong, admitted it and allowed the app in the marketplace.


    “If you want an application or music on your iPhone, you must purchase it from Apple.”

    That’s funny, I use last.fm, pandora, MOG. Music streams/downloads just fine. Or I buy the music from amazon.com or wherever else sells mp3’s.

    The comments get even worse.

    “Exactly. They claim to be moral guardians, so why haven’t they banned or restricted net access?”

    Because they didn’t create the internet. They did create the APPLE ITUNES MARKETPLACE.

    I’m blown away at just how bad this is. Click, deleted.

    • Thanks for the link — I’d certainly missed the news that Apple decided to accept it. But it proves the following points:

      1. It’s hard to make consistent moral decisions, and

      2. News of a rejected app raises more media attention than those which are accepted. I bet sales for that book are far higher with all the publicity.

  • WebKarnage

    If they’re coping with what they are coping with just fine (look at their profitability if you want proof of just how well it’s going) then 2 or 3 times the apps will not hurt Apple in the least. When an app is successful it more than subsidises those that aren’t to keep Apple healthy, let alone the way the expanding app store keeps selling more iPhones, iPads and iPod touch units.

    They have to check the apps don’t keep crashing the iPhone anyway (a phone crash feels way worse than a computer one) so it won’t change any time soon.

    Someone (commenter) think Android will overtake iOS? Not soon it won’t, when they can’t even keep it well enough standardised.

    When other big businesses like Google spend most of their IO conference talking about Apple, then they know Apple are in the driving seat. Adobe started a row, and that’s not helped Adobe any either.

    I’m not likely to own an iPhone soon as the contracts are too expensive for someone that doesn’t use a mobile enough, but my old iPod Touch is a very useful beast with email, FTP, text editing and social networking on board with super-slick syncing to my Mac. Android matching that usability soon? Not a chance.

    • EastCoast

      in fact, android market share is up 500% over last year, and that was before the current deluge of lower end android models going on sale.
      Fragmentation of android implementation has absolutely zero effect on the buying public, it’s purely a marginal concern for 0.000001% of the population who develop mobile apps rather than purely consume them.

  • Steve

    “It’s easy for Apple to manage a few hundred thousand applications while the mobile market is relatively small. ”

    What planet are you on? The mobile market is not small and has not been for years.

    Otherwise I agree – Apple’s moral enforcement is doomed to failure, if for no other reason than because few people are actually as easy to offend as Apple likes to suggest.

    • The mobile market isn’t small, but the smartphone app market is. It’s growing fast, though.

      • Steve

        By what measure? 200,000 apps on Apple’s app store? 100,000 apps on Android market? Billion++ downloads from Apple?

        I might accept fledgeling, because as a whole the market has a long way to grow into maturity, but calling the mobile market (smartphone or otherwise) small is short-sighted.

      • Do you think Microsoft would be able to test every new Windows application? Could Apple test every new Mac application?

        The mobile app market is minuscule in comparison. It’s growing rapidly and, at some point, Apple will not be able to cope with the volume of software it has to test.

      • Steve

        The app market is bloated with crap, not miniscule.

        Obviously we have very different perspectives :-)

  • Evan

    The App Store is a virtual Apple retail store that is going to experience growing pains and objectivity issues related to app approval. However, you’re subject takes the position that censorship is bad for Apple’s business and bad for the consumer, which I disagree with.

    All retail stores have a right to selectively buy and sell product they feel will help their business based on what they think their customers will want to see. This isn’t some moral crusade, as you suggest. If Apple allowed adult entertainment content on their App Store, the top ten apps would not be family friendly, which is a bad business model for them when a family walks into an Apple Store and an employee shows them a top ten list of what they can buy for their iPad or iPhone. That’s a decision to make sure Apple products appeal to a wide variety of people without offending them with a top seller list full of XXX Apps.

    You can’t buy adult entertainment industry content from Best Buy. You can’t buy Tijuana Bibles of Mickey and Minnie Mouse at the Disney Store. It’s simply inappropriate.

    However, as you stated, the world wide web is a (mostly) uncensored free-for-all, and Apple supports that with Mobile Safari. Apple doesn’t censor any content you choose to see through their web browser, aside from Adobe Flash content for a number of reasons they have already publicly stated and debated.

    The commercial viability of an App Store model is based on developer licenses, which they sell for $100, regardless if the app is sold at a price or distributed for free.

    The biggest problem Apple has with the App Store is the subjective nature of content and a rating system, which they have. There have been poor decisions of unfair app disapproval that have needed correcting. As the App Store expands, so must the management of what goes on it.

    • This isn’t necessarily about pornography: Apple has been rejecting satirical works which mock public figures, apps which mention competing products, and even an e-book reader because it offered the “possibility” of showing adult content.

      The difference with Best Buy or Disney is that if you want adult entertainment products or Tijuana Bibles, you can get them elsewhere. However, the App Store has an iPhone/iPad monopoly — you cannot buy applications which Apple disagrees with.

      How long do you think it takes to fully check a submitted application? The $100 developer licence won’t go anywhere near covering the cost. As more applications appear, the ratio of profitable to non-profitable apps will also reduce — and so will Apple’s App Store profits.

      Censorship costs money and, at some point, it’ll become more than the average profit generated by a single application.

      • joezim007

        I agree only with the fact that it may hurt them financially. That is the only good point you’ve made.

        As a reply to your comment, Apple may monopolize the iPhone and iPad, but they don’t monopolize smartphone applications. There are plenty of other smartphones available out there.

        I view this censorship as a type of spam control. Honestly, every website out there that has a semi smart developer behind it will filter content from users. Sitepoint.com sends comments in to be approved before they are shown.

        This is all about trying to provide only the things that they deem their customers should see. Spam may be universally recognized by just about anyone, but it is still subjective and if Apple can’t control what they sell, then what gives you the right to filter out our comments? You never know who might have wanted to see that website that was linked in that supposed spam content!

      • The financial point is the only one I made!

        Apple are not filtering spam nor are they doing quality-control checks. There’s plenty of rubbish in the app store.

        They’re blocking apps which could have a negative commercial impact. That’s up to them but, rather than admitting it, they provide moralistic reasons: it’s bad for users, it contains objectionable content etc. Unfortunately, it’s led them down a censorship path and no company would want to be there.

  • Whosdigit

    It’s a legal position. The fact that Safari isn’t censored is probably due to the fact that you’re not purchasing that content directly from Apple.

    It’s an interesting stance though. Violence, religion, politics, drinking, smoking and tedium are allowed as apps with little to no censorship.

    • Nah, there’s nothing legal about it. ISP’s have been filtering content for years. However, who would buy a smartphone with restricted web access?

  • FormerGenius

    To paraphrase F.A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom: Where there is no choice there can be no moral behaviour. Morality is the exercise of the appropriate choice when presented with good and bad alternatives, and it is through the exercise of choice that we develop a moral consciousness. Authoritarians who deny us choice are trying to keep us in perpetual infancy.
    Outright banning of material is only appropriate when someone is clearly and unambiguously harmed in the production of the material and where there is near-universal agreement that a ban is appropriate. Virtually everyone agrees, for example, that child pornography should be banned.
    Yes, I know that your post was about the commercial viability of Apple’s censorship, so excuse the slightly off-topic rant. But as a libertarian I despise authoritarians, which is why I won’t be joining the i-revolution.

    • joezim007

      That is very true, but the problem is this world points at so many horrible things as being morally good. Until people actually care about morals, I won’t care if someone is trying to demonstrate good morals by removing immorality.

  • LazyAndroid

    They should focus more on banning bad quality and not nudity (man, I paid for so many apps which turned out to be crap).

    • But isn’t it your right to buy whatever crap you want?

      The reason you’re questioning it is because Apple has somehow approved the poor application you purchased. Surely you now have a right to demand a refund?

    • joezim007

      Was the application “crap” or did it just not live up to your expectations? The developer may use that application frequently and find it quite useful.

  • cqwagner

    Personally, I like the censorship on Apple’s App Store. I actually own and Moto Droid and don’t see myself switching anytime soon, but that is mainly because I use Google apps and a lot of Google products.

    I would never think of buying and Android for my kids; at least until they come out with some good filters. I still wouldn’t buy an iPhone for my kids as well, but that is because of Safari. As a parent, though, I do appreciate what Apple is doing with some apps. When it comes to apps like Google Voice, well, I don’t agree, but they are able to make that business decision.

    As far as Apple being able to maintain this, I believe for awhile they will be able to. In the long term it may hurt them, but for now they are the App Store to be on. They could raise that $100.00 developer fee if needed. I don’t see their profits hurting (I believe they were up something like 72% last quarter).

    I like Apple’s computers (typing this on a MacBook), but I don’t like the entire walled garden structure of the company. I may sound like a contradiction, wanting an open and democratic web that is also censored, but I am a parent, and that comes first. If they could filter Safari, I do believe I would let me kids get an iPhone (at their expense, of course!)

  • I have some very mixed thoughts and feeling regarding iPhone, iPad and Apple in general. So far, I’ve managed to avoid jumping on the Apple band wagon. I have several friends that are users of the iPhone. It’s truely amazing, yet at the same time there are some down sides.
    I seriously believe this is a need for quality control, when it comes to applications. Applications that are not stable and easy to use just add needless frustration. I’m all for Quality control 100%. I sincerely believe I myself should not be allowed to download and install anything I want. Why? because I don’t sincerely know if that Application is going to be solid and reliable. Personally, I think a lot of people are tired of downloading and installing things on their devices to discover the disappointment and frustration. I know I want applications that really do work and are solid.
    In regards to the content issues, you can pretty much can access all kinds of uncensored material through the internet. The mobile web works just fine for that. I can understand censorship at the application level, within reason. Again, people can always turn to the Mobile web for whatever uncensored material they want to get a hold of. While Apple may not be 100% correct with everything they are censoring, they are clearly not allowing for 1,000 porno apps to be distributed and installed on iPhones.
    I am thankful that Apple has some form of control, because we have seen what happens without. The Spammers, the Scammers, the Porno marketing and all the flood of idiotic stuff that’s been bundled with PC applications and etc. Also, the last thing I want to do is download some virus or malware onto an iPhone and have it crash. I would be too dependent upon it.
    In my opinion, it would be a mistake for Apple to let anybody install anything on the iPHONE. The freedom we have had with our PC’s, has cost us the Freedom from being invaded by bad apps, viruses, malware, buggy applications and endless list of frustrating trash.
    I sincerely believe, that Apple is trying to maintain a reason balance with good intentions, instead of evil intentions. I’d much rather have Apple in control verses being at the mercy of maliceware that some 16 year old cooked up in their bedroom late at night. I’d rather Apple be in control as opposed to the control all this evil stupid software (that we are free to download) has over our PC’s.
    These are just my thoughts on the matter.

    • Thanks for your comments, iDude.

      The problem for me is that Apple has few cares about quality control. They’ll check an app doesn’t crash or upload your contact list to the web, but they don’t quality-assure the products. However, that’s the impression they try to give.

      No one wants spam, viruses, malware etc. but no other smartphone manufacturers limit what software you’re allowed to write or run.

      Obviously, millions of people are reassured or don’t care about Apple’s walled-garden approach. Personally, I don’t like being told what I can or can’t use, so I don’t have an iPhone (the UK price premium put me off too). However, censorship is a big can of worms and I think it will ultimately backfire for purely business reasons.

      • Craig, you are right, millions of people do not care about Apple’s walled-garden approach. It really has very little effect upon their day to day life using the the device.

        Most people have a small handful of applications that they frequently use, the rest are used occasionally or very seldom at all.

        In many regards people are using the iPhone to make phone calls, send and recieve text messages, take pictures, use GPS based applications and everything else becomes rather secondary. For instance I’ve only noticed a small percentage of people on my facebook friends list are using facebook mobile. Most of these people have the lastest mobile devices that support it to. I’m speaking about mobile devices and applications in general.

        The one thing I’ve started to notice about my friends or people I know with iPhones, are complaints about dropped signals and connections. A few have become frustrated by AT&T or Apple customer service regarding this matter. They have been informed that they need to hold their iPhones a certain way and etc.

        The biggest thing I love about Apple, is that they shook up an industry that needed it. Came out with a sleek device, without all the buttons and key pads, the touch screen technology is awesome (it’s only going to get better). The user interface is easy to use and learn quickly. People are into simple applications and devices that don’t cause a great amount of frustration.

        In regards to censorship, history has proved that business goes on just fine with and/or without it.

        I used to operate a 120 line BBS system before the internet exploded. The general forums and public chat rooms had swear detection and auto-boot off after so many attempts. Ironically, this worked in favor for both me and my users. People were actually more social with one another with less drama, and I ended up having many compliments because of it. Mind you I did allow for swearing in private chats, and supported an adult section. Anyways, this was a case in point where censorship applied in the right ways, actually was good for business. I also provided people with a number of games and multiplayer game link up’s for Doom and such back in the day. People just wanted to interact with one another in positive ways, this is what it all boiled down to. Censorship applied in the right ways on services encourages experiences in positive directions.

        It may or may not ultimately backfire for business reasons with apple. Mind you, it could also be ultimately working in Apples favor. This might be part of the reason why it’s doing so well right now.

        Nobody is forcing anybody to buy an iPhone. There are many other alternatives out there for people. The level of censorship involved is not preventing anybody from sharing their political views or opinions. It’s not trying in inhibit information on such a scale that it hampers society. Ironic, is the fact that the major media outlet’s themselves engage in more censorship and bias compared to Apple any day of the week. Yet, it’s had very little impact on their bottom business line.

  • Whosdigit

    Isn’t it illegal to view certain forms of pornography in the U.K.?

    I seem to remember that a few years back Pete Townsend had a run in while doing research for a song.

    If the U.K. can ban different levels of pornography to protect it’s citizens, what is the issue with Apple taking a pro-active stance to protect it’s viewers.

    They’ve taken it on the chin for other politically unacceptable Apps in the past.
    Web browser’s seem to be exempt, and hopefully for free speech sake, will remain so.

    Ultimately it will come down to the competition filling the void, if that’s what the public desires, but I don’t see Apple changing their stance just to make more money. If they see it as a “vision”, porn in the App store is as dead as the zip drive.

    • ionised

      “certain types of pornography” = anything involving minors (16 or under) or children.
      I don’t know what you heard about Pete Townsend but I heard it was related to possession or downloading indecent pictures of children (again, this term includes minors- defined in the UK as anyone under the age of 16. I haven’t followed up the story to know more details). I think most countries make this stuff, not just the UK.

  • Apple’s censorship may end up being too costly for them in the end. Though, since we don’t know how they do it, or how much it costs them, there’s not much else you can say about it. For all we know, it’s actually saving them money.
    For one thing, how many developers are going to waste their money making something that will definitely be banned? Not too many, which means that Apple doesn’t really have to spend too much money censoring stuff.
    Apple’s banning of porn is the only thing I like about them. Many people let their kids use their iphones all the time. Banning porn helps parents keep control over what their kids see.