Image: Chris Kindred

Apple’s Long History of Rejecting 'Objectionable Content’ From the App Store

This is the story of technology’s most important walled garden.

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Jul 17 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Chris Kindred

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along.

Each day, Apple is tasked with a near-impossible job: keeping its sprawling App Store free from malware, blatantly offensive content, and spam. In order to do it, the company requires each of the App Store's roughly two million apps, from iFart to Twitter, to undergo an extensive approval process.

It's always been this way. In 2010, Steve Jobs famously told a customer in an email that he believes Apple has "a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone," and that those looking for explicit content should "buy an Android." It's not just porn, of course—Apple has rejected apps that are politically problematic, contain malware, put Apple in a bad light, or are just plain juvenile.

To this day, developers say the Google Play store is much less restrictive than the App Store. But Apple's software marketplace is one of the biggest digital economies ever created. Last year, App Store developers raked in $20 billion, so it makes economic sense for them to them to continue to focus the bulk of their energy on iOS.

While most developers never run into problems with the App Store, there are plenty who have spent years honing and perfecting their apps, only to be turned away from the App Store for mysterious reasons, often under Apple's infamous rule banning "objectionable content."

The rule, outlined in Apple's App Store Review Guidelines, has both specific and vague instructions: For example, it bans porn and racism, but also "mean-spirited" content. It's been used as a catchall to reject everything from fart apps to one that monitors drone strikes. When it's invoked, it can leave developers clueless.

"After five years and more than a dozen App Store rejections, I can confidently say I have no idea what's going on over there," Josh Begley, a data scientist and editor at The Intercept whose drone strike news app has been repeatedly rejected, told me in an email. Apple did not return two requests for comment.

Begley's app, Metadata, is a straightforward piece of software that sends a push notification each time a US drone strike abroad is reported by a news outlet. Begley's attempts to get it into the App Store have been met with a seemingly endless series of rejections.

Apple's explanations for banning Metadata have varied, but were always vague. Besides arguing it contained "objectionable content," the app was also rebuffed because it "did not appeal to a broad enough audience," which is a strange critique from a company that trademarked a phrase about how there's an app for everything.

Less serious apps have also been rejected for mysterious reasons. Earlier this year, Motherboard confirmed that Apple was rejecting apps that featured Pepe, a cartoon frog that has recently been associated with the alt-right. Again, App Store reviewers claim that such apps feature "objectionable content."

"I think it is quite unhealthy for the developer ecosystem to not more specifically outline what is allowed and not allowed," the developer of a rejected game that contained images of Pepe told Motherboard at the time.

The uncertainty of getting an app approved keeps some developers away from Apple entirely.

Apple's review process has plagued developers for nearly a decade. When the App Store first launched in 2008, Apple wouldn't allow fart apps on its devices. Joel Comm, a developer who had been sitting on an app called iFart, was annoyed. "The fact that they weren't explicit about what they would or wouldn't allow was burdensome," Comm told me on a phone call.

iFart would eventually make Comm and his colleagues rich. When Apple reversed the fart app ban, Comm's app, which made a variety of humorous noises, soared to the top of the App Store's charts. By the end of 2008, it was sometimes raking in $10,000 a day.

The episode showed that Apple was capable of having changes of heart, which can greatly impact the bottom line of developers reliant on the App Store. The uncertainty of getting an app approved keeps some developers away from Apple entirely.

"Google will sometimes publish your app almost instantaneously. I mean they do review apps, but certainly not to the same standard Apple does," Jonathan Robbins, an Android developer who made a Pepe game for Android but not iOS, told Motherboard in an email. "I've worked for a company doing iOS development and it was always such a pain when it came time to submit or update an app for the Apple App Store."

The App Store approval process can be an irritation for developers, but it's more problematic for consumers, who often don't know what kind of content they're missing. Apple has created
a privately owned walled garden that affects how the more than 700 million iPhone users worldwide interact with their phones and consume information online.

When Apple rejects an app like Metadata for example, it prevents Americans from learning about their government's covert military efforts abroad, which routinely kill more civilians than it wants to admit. When it chooses to reject fart apps or those that feature a specific meme frog, it imposes its own standard of decency upon its users. Apple tailors the App Store to meet not just its own tastes, however.

On more than one occasion, the tech giant has removed apps from the App Store to cater to the wishes of foreign governments, namely Russia and China.

Earlier this year, it complied with a request from Chinese governmental authorities to remove the New York Times app from the country's version of the App Store. Apple declined to tell the newspaper what local regulations its app violated and how it was contacted by Chinese authorities.

"The company is nowhere to be found when it comes to freedom of expression, they're just absent."

In Russia this year, Apple (and Google) complied when the government there requested they remove the LinkedIn app from their respective app stores. The order came after LinkedIn declined to relocate its data on Russian citizens to servers in the country.

Apple doesn't provide data about the number of apps that governments have requested to be censored on a per country basis as part of its transparency report. The company is a "laggard when it comes to transparency and accountability," Rebecca MacKinnon, the director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at New America told me on a phone call.

"We're not aware that they've done any impact assessment as to how their policies and practices might be affecting freedom of expression," she explained. "The company is nowhere to be found when it comes to freedom of expression, they're just absent."

Apple has also rejected apps that put its business in a bad light. In 2011, it rejected Phone Story, which examines the ugly side of producing and consuming smartphones. The next year, it removed A Permanent Slave, a game that explores the afterlife of seven real-life factory workers who committed suicide at Foxconn electronics plants in China, where many Apple products are made.

The App Store is the most successful guarded ecosystem in the history of the internet. For nearly a decade, Apple has undertaken a remarkable task—keeping an enormous software marketplace free from spam, malware, and risks to user security. And for the most part, it has been good at the job.

But at the same time, Apple has repeatedly rejected apps and refused to clarify its decisions to developers and users. While it's also frequently corrected its mistakes, rejections like Metadata's show that Apple is not afraid to wield its power without explaining itself.

The company has effectively dictated what kind of content should live on the devices we carry around with us everywhere, and stare at for hours each day. By controlling what's allowed in its App Store, Apple has shaped how iPhone, iPad, and Mac users experience the internet.

Jason Koebler contributed reporting to this piece.

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