Opinion: The Tyranny Of Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines

Gamasutra's Kyle Orland argues that Apple's newly-revealed App Store Review Guidelines document is full of inconsistent and vague restrictions that limit app developers’ rights to free expression.
[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra editor Kyle Orland argues that Apple's newly-revealed App Store Review Guidelines document is full of inconsistent and vague restrictions that limit app developers’ rights to free expression.] Don’t get me wrong, I understand why Apple doesn’t just go the Android route and allow any app written by some yahoo with a developer account onto its iOS devices. Apple has an interest in guaranteeing that the apps it allows its users to download won’t be destructive, unusable, or misrepresentative of Apple or any other companies or entities. The majority of Apple’s newly-revealed App Store Review Guidelines, which deal with these kinds of issues, are perfectly understandable. But like so many other content reviewers before them, Apple has taken this little bit of reasonable restrictive power and extended it to unreasonable levels. The company’s App Store Review Guidelines have the air of soundness and comprehensiveness about them, but the seven-page document is full of hypocritical, inconsistent and vague restrictions that limit App developers’ rights to free expression. ”If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.” Let’s start right in the second paragraph of the introduction, where Apple lays out the rationale for restricting app content in the first place:

"We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. 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."
While it’s awfully nice of Apple to suggest other avenues where developers might practice their religion-hating, sex-loving free expression, I don’t see why such speech is OK when it’s written or sung, but not OK when it’s made interactive. Why would an iPhone version of a game like Bye Bye Mosques be subject to review (and likely denial) by Apple -- while a book encouraging readers to blow up mosques would be theoretically allowed on their book store without review? Why can I download a Prince song about Little Nicky "masturbating to a magazine" from iTunes, but not download an interactive story app that lets me do it myself? While Apple doesn’t explicitly say why it views apps differently than books or songs, one gets the feeling reading the Review Guidelines that it has something to do with their idea of “keeping an eye out for the kids,” as they put it. After all, children never read or listen to music, but Apple notes:

"We have lots of kids downloading lots of apps, and parental controls don't work unless the parents set them up (many don't).”
Even leaving aside the cross-media double-standard for a moment, here we have Apple making the incredible admission that their own parental controls have been made ineffective by an overwhelming lack of parental interest. Not just somewhat ineffective, but so completely ineffective that Apple has felt the need to take on the parental control role for themselves. If parents really aren’t using the iOS’ parental controls enough, I can think of quite a few things Apple could have done to address this problem. They could have forced users to set up parental controls (or actively opt out of them) when they buy or upgrade an iOS device. They could have mounted one of their extremely popular ad campaigns to educate the masses about the feature. Instead, the company decided to skip the middleman and become surrogate parents for every man, woman and child with an iDevice, no matter their age or maturity level. ”I'll know it when I see it.” But being a surrogate parent is no easy task. You have to set down logical, straightforward, easily understandable rules or your children might rebel. So Apple has included a host of extremely clear-cut, no-grey-area guidelines for what kind of app content is and is not acceptable in its Review Guidelines. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the introduction:

"We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, ‘I'll know it when I see it.’ And we think that you will also know it when you cross it."
Don’t play dumb, app developers... you knew you were crossing the line when you submitted that rejected app, didn’t you? Of course you did. In fact, we’re not even going to tell you where that line might be, because you’ll know immediately when you’ve crossed it anyway. Everyone is born with such inherent line-sensing abilities, right? Actually, Apple gets a little more precise with Guideline 18.1, using Webster’s dictionary definition of pornography to restrict content that includes:

"Explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings."
Since they’re obviously fond of quoting Supreme Court justices, I’m kind of surprised Apple didn’t instead use the requirements described in 1974’s Miller vs. California, which forced state anti-obscenity statutes to consider "whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find the work offensive. Actually, I’m not that surprised they didn’t use this standard, because such a restriction would require Apple to trust iPhone users to decide for themselves what kind of content they and their contemporary communities were mature enough to view. After all, why have standards that are local when you can have standards that are Apple’s? Of course, it’s not enough for your content to be clean. The content generated by all of your users has to be clean as well. See Regulation 18.2, which states:

"Apps that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic (ex. ‘Chat Roulette’ apps) will be rejected."
Given this restriction, Apple might want to take a second look at the FaceTime app they built in to iOS 4.0. Not to be crude, but I hear a lot of people are using it to take pictures of things that are not their faces. ”...Illegal or reckless use of such weapons...” Just being clean (inside and out) isn’t enough to get your App through the wringer, though. You have to eschew violence, too. It’s for the children, you understand, that rule 15.4 states:

"Apps involving realistic depictions of weapons in such a way as to encourage illegal or reckless use of such weapons will be rejected."
Someone should let Apple know that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars somehow snuck through this safety net. The Rockstar game has been one of the App Store’s top selling titles despite allowing players to use tanks, flamethrowers, and all sorts of semi-automatic weapons in some incredibly illegal and reckless ways. I suppose it's arguable that the game isn’t a “realistic” depiction of violence, but really, short of an app that lets you shoot people via live webcam and a server specially rigged up to a shotgun, I’m not sure what that adjective is even supposed to mean in this context. ”...The ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary.” Even if your app is clean and nonviolent, it might not be enough if it’s not respectful, too. Not just respectful to Apple, but respectful to everyone. So says Guideline 14.1, which reads that:

"Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way will be rejected."
While I can understand why Apple wouldn’t want apps that put people’s reputations or bodies on the line, I can’t understand why they’d want to limit content that is merely offensive or mean-spirited. After all, our country was built on offensive, mean-spirited commentary, and on the citizenry’s right to make such commentary as they see fit. Turn on any cable news show or open any newspaper’s Op-Ed page, in fact, and you’ll see our country continues to thrive on giving offense and yelling while in mean spirits. Luckily, there’s a loophole for patriotic Americans in Regulation 14.2, which states:

"Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary."
Maybe someone at Apple can tell the tens of thousands of app makers out there where they can get their professional professional political satirist/humorist card. Is there a government agency that issues them? What about those of us who are merely amateur satirists, working our way up to achieve one of those few paid positions? Should developers submit a scanned pay stub from an officially approved satirical organization with their App submissions? ”We don't need any more Fart apps.” But even if your submission is clean, respectful and nonviolent, your app can still be rejected if it’s not original enough. Back we go to the introduction:

"We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don't need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted."
As I write this, a search for “fart” on the iTunes App Store turns up 807 distinct apps, by my count. Let’s take Apple’s statement that "we don’t need any more Fart apps" at face value. That means that, logically, they did need more Fart apps on Sept. 10, when Farts Ultimate Soundboard Version 1.0 was approved for release on the App Store. Never mind that the copy of the Review Guidelines I’m working from is dated Sept. 9, 2010. The point is that Apple’s “no more Fart apps needed” pledge can be used to determine the precise level of originality necessary to make it on to the App Store. Basically, you have to be one of the first 800 or so app makers to beat an idea to death in order to get that sought-after approval. After that, sorry my friend, but you missed the gold rush. ”If it sounds like we're control freaks...” Perhaps realizing how all these myriad restrictions made the company sound, Apple takes an almost apologetic tone in wrapping up the introduction to their Review Guidelines:

“If it sounds like we're control freaks, well, maybe it's because we're so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products. ”
That sounds great, on the face of it, but it’s Apple’s definition of a “quality experience” that’s worrying. Instead of focusing exclusively on keeping the App Store free of bugs, viruses and hard-to-use interfaces, the App Review Guidelines, as written, try to enforce an app experience that’s sanitized of all nudity, violence, disrespect and certain overused ideas. That might sound like quality to some, but to me it sounds more like tyranny.

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