the audit

Apple’s Speech Policies Should Still Worry the Press

April 20, 2010

Apple has asked Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore to “resubmit” his iPhone/iPad application for approval, with Steve Jobs saying it was a “mistake.”

Of course it was, but this issue is still a serious problem for the press. It doesn’t change the story much at all, other than show that Steve Jobs is a relatively benign dictator when it comes to these kinds of things.

The key insight is that the dispute shows the kind of capriciousness you’re subjecting yourself to when people who sign that licensing agreement (emphasis mine):

Applications may be rejected if they contain content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.”

It was never likely that Apple would continue to block Fiore’s app, just as it’s unlikely that it would yank USA Today for printing some hatchet job on Apple Incorporated.

Don’t think Apple would ban or yank a newspaper? What about, say, Murdoch tabloid The Sun? Apple has had a fickle relationship with swimsuits even, as The New York Times reported two months ago, noting that Apple had pulled some apps with swimsuit-clad women. But:

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Indeed, a Sports Illustrated application tied to its annual swimsuit issue was still available for download on Monday, as was one from Playboy.

Playboy? I thought Apple had banned nudity from its App Store. So, Audit reader, I forked over the 99 cents for it (I’ll do anything for you guys!), and found that even the Playboy app doesn’t have it. So The Sun, with its Page Three girls, is presumably a nonstarter with Apple. Nudity is just the most, well, visible aspect of Apple’s restrictions on speech.

Again, the important caveat is that iPad has an excellent browser with access to the full Web (as long as the site doesn’t use Flash software, which is a major drawback and another piece of Apple control). But the point is that if the iPad proves to be a big success for revenue-shedding publishers, Apple will have a huge amount of leverage over the industry. Brian X. Chen, from his ahead-of-the-curve piece in February:

But the lack of bikini-clad ladies in the App Store isn’t the issue here. It’s the fact that Apple has so much market power, combined with the fact that magazine and newspaper publishers are getting pumped to produce apps for Apple’s iPad, which will be served through Apple’s tightly regulated App Store. The iPad could very well play a major role in the future of publishing, with several of the biggest book publishers already on board to sell e-books through the iPad’s iBooks store, and major publications, including Wired, already working on iPad apps to launch in the App Store.

What will happen when a journalist writes a controversial story about abortion or vaccines? Will displeased readers skip writing angry letters to the publisher and go straight to Apple to get the article pulled? And would Apple then comply?

I think that’s unlikely. But Chen’s point is that the press shouldn’t let there be any doubt.

Apple’s going to get nailed on antitrust issues before too long, I’d guess. But the press has to fight for its principles anyway. One of the biggies is not letting anyone, much less a $225 billion corporation, have any kind of control over what it can publish.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.