Apple is stirring up yet another censorship brouhaha with its latest changes to App Store policy. The company recently began blocking screenshots for apps that are outside the acceptable age range in Parental Controls in iTunes. According to iPhone developer ChiliFresh, it seems that all "overtly sexual" apps might be expunged from the App Store too, which is making some users uneasy about Apple's "power" once again.
Last month, we reported on a glitch in the App Store system that let any user browse apps and their sometimes NSFW screenshots in iTunes, even if Parental Controls indicated that the user was a small child. Shortly after the glitch was reported to Apple as a bug, developers were notified that all screenshots for the App Store had to be free of "objectionable material" and be acceptable for a 4+ rating. This, of course, was a good thing.
Many of the apps in question were essentially collections of racy pictures (some more racy than others), so a screenshot amounted to soft-core porn for some. "If you actually look at what the screenshots for these porn apps were, they were no different from running the app," developer Fraser Speirs, who first noted the problem, told Ars. If they could be made appropriate, they wouldn't show much of the app at all."
Still, Apple recently began blocking access to screenshots for apps that didn't match Parental Controls settings. "You can still see the apps, but the screenshots are hidden," Speirs said. "This is now the same as the on-device version of the App Store." He noted that this is still an improvement, since apps may have a certain age rating. Things like "crude humor," "drug references," and "violence" are just some of the criteria developers have to consider when assigning a rating for the App Store.
Despite these changes, however, it appears Apple intends to purge the App Store of all apps with sexual overtones. Developer ChilliFresh got a notice from Apple that its app "Wobble iBoobs" was being removed from the App Store due to a policy change on apps with "overtly sexual content." An e-mail from the App Store review team explains the change:
The App Store continues to evolve, and as such, we are constantly refining our guidelines. Your application, Wobble iBoobs (Premium Uncensored), contains content that we had originally believed to be suitable for distribution. However, we have recently received numerous complaints from our customers about this type of content, and have changed our guidelines appropriately.
We have decided to remove any overtly sexual content from the App Store, which includes your application. Thank you for your understanding in this matter. If you believe you can make the necessary changes so that Wobble iBoobs (Premium Uncensored) complies with our recent changes, we encourage you to do so and resubmit for review.
For its part, ChilliFresh maintains that Wobble iBoobs is not overtly sexual, since it does not include any photos in the application. Users supply their own photos to make parts "wobble," but its clear from the title of the app what parts of the human anatomy the developers had in mind.
We asked Apple what had prompted the change. "Whenever we receive customer complaints about objectionable content we review them," Apple spokesperson Trudy Muller told Ars. "If we find these apps contain inappropriate material we remove them and request the developer make any necessary changes in order to be distributed by Apple." Apple declined to give further details about the nature or number of complaints it had received.
Reaction has been mixed so far. "I'm relaxed with the porn decision because it was always clear that they were in breach of the hitherto un-enforced rules," Speirs said. "Jobs said the day the iPhone SDK was announced that they wouldn't carry porn," he told Ars.
Developer Justin Williams noted that he was conflicted himself when he learned of the policy change. While getting rid of "AppPorn" clears out what many might call "garbage," it still feels like censorship. "The iPhone has Parental Controls that could restrict access if Apple implemented support," Williams said. "Rather than fix the problem the right way, though, they instead just put people out of business."
Apple could certainly put its Parental Controls to better use. Perhaps the company could create a separate category for such apps, letting users choose to enable or restrict access to the category for themselves or their children. Alternately, Apple could make the App Store a well-curated, "safe" place to buy apps, and allow users the option to load apps of their choosing from third parties.
As it stands, Apple is the sole source of iPhone apps and has made itself the arbiter of taste. However, taste is highly subjective across age groups, religions, even cultures. "Apple shouldn't be in the taste business or iTunes would be all Bob Dylan music," Williams wryly added via Twitter.
Apple has also shifted the line between acceptable and unacceptable several times since the App Store opened in 2008. At first, Apple rejected anything that might even hint of sex, then allowed some soft-core porn when Parental Controls were enabled. Now that policy has changed again, making it difficult for developers to know where the line is or if it will ever stay in one place.
We agree that individuals should have the right to decide what's tasteful for themselves, and we respect the right of parents to make that choice for their children. But instead of giving users the necessary tools to do that, Apple is making the choice for them. That's something the we have long-maintained isn't the right way to go.
Source: ars technica