Take, for example, the story of the independent filmmaker Tara Hurley, who in 2009 produced a film about the massage parlor industry in the state of Rhode Island where prostitution—until the end of that year—was legal when carried out behind closed doors. Titled “Happy Endings?” the film contains interviews with women who worked in the industry as well as politicians and police. It is available for purchase and rental on Amazon and elsewhere, but last year Hurley decided to promote the film with a free iPhone app including trailers, reviews, an in app purchase of the film, Wikipedia links, and information for the viewer to reach out if they needed help if they were victims of human trafficking.
It was created professionally by a company called Stonehenge Productions, which specializes in making promotional apps for films, and which had never had an app rejected by Apple in the past. Apple denied publication of the “Happy Endings” app without any explanation. Hurley contacted Apple in an effort to appeal the decision but to this day has received no response. She points out that two TV shows dealing with prostitution produced by HBO are available on iPads and iPhones through the HBO Go app.
In 2009, the political cartoonist Mark Fiore—a freelancer who runs a syndication business—submitted a political cartoon app featuring his work making fun of various political figures, and had it rejected by the Apple app nannies. In an email, they explained it was rejected because it
contains content that ridicules public figures and is in violation of Section 3.3.14 from the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement which states: Applications may be rejected if they contain content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.
When Fiore won a Pulitzer prize a few months later and the media exposed Apple’s rejection, he was invited to re-submit the app, and it was approved.
The moral of the story here is that when it comes to racy or controversial content, the famous and the powerful have a much easier time reaching iPhone and iPad-using audiences than freelancers, independent operators, and small media startups nobody has ever heard of. I describe several more examples in my book.
From what we can glean from publicly-known cases, it appears that apps created by non-American individuals and organizations are more likely to get blocked if they include controversial or racy content, or content likely to offend some significant segment of iPad and iPhone users—even though it is considered protected speech under the First Amendment and international law. None of these people can sue Apple in the United States or any other court because it is acting within its legal rights given that the app submitters all agreed to terms of service allowing Apple to censor whatever it wants for any reason.
It is not clear whether the big brand news organizations and media companies pay attention to or care about these types of cases—after all they are not affected. They have their own direct relationships and communication channels with Apple.
But given that the big brand news companies are working hard to attract global audiences on the iPad and iPhone, and given those devices’ global popularity, what that means is that a growing segment of the global public is relying for their information and discourse about local, national, and global events on a platform that discriminates against the most controversial and vulnerable independent creators of digital media.
This reliance might be fine for the big companies, but it bodes rather ill for the future of independent, entrepreneurial journalism and therefore, I believe, for democracy.
News and media companies that do care about the future of journalism and democracy must not turn a blind eye to Apple’s arbitrary censorship. The point is not that they should avoid Apple apps and their relationships with Apple. The point is that since the law and the constitution are apparently useless against private censorship and discrimination, the only way to get Apple to operate in a democracy-compatible manner is if Apple’s customers, business partners, and investors insist on it.
It is time for the news business to remove the scales from their eyes and move on from their blind love affair with the iPad to a realistic partnership in which news companies insist that Apple manage its content platform in a manner that is compatible not only with big-media journalism but all kinds of journalism—including the types of entrepreneurial, independent, and edgy journalism that schools like this one are encouraging graduates to engage in. For this reason, it is also important that news companies not put all their eggs in the Apple basket.