What’s wrong with apps? After all, apps appear to be a much more promising way for news companies to generate subscription and advertising revenue than on the open Web where nobody wants to pay for anything and content is so easily ripped off.
The problem with apps is that they give the companies that run the platforms that deliver content to their devices an opportunity to censor and discriminate against certain content—not only when governments require it, but also for business reasons, or for no clear reason. You will not be too surprised to learn that in its app store for the Chinese market, Apple censors apps about the Dalai Lama, and anything else of a politically sensitive nature that the Chinese government forbids. But even here in the United States and around the Western world, we are seeing arbitrary and troubling content censorship by Apple.
This includes journalistic content by independent, small, or foreign app creators—that is clearly protected by the First Amendment in this country, and by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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.