As reported by TechCrunch, Apple yesterday reversed its policies regarding previously accepted iPhone apps that contain sexual content. Numerous such apps, some having been in the Store for months, were removed. Developers received a brief email stating:
“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.”
The list of now-banned apps includes many with only the mildest form of sexual content (certainly no nudity or anything that might be considered pornographic). On this list were eleven apps from Chris Pavlou, author of the the Audio Match game, whose saga to get the app into the App Store I previously covered. Making matters worse, Apple appears inconsistent in its enforcement of this new policy; several apps with sexual content remain in the Store.
Reader comments appended to the TechCrunch article epitomize the common split of opinions in this debate:
“It still does bother me that Apple has complete control over what can be put on their platforms. It might be THEIR platform, but it’s MY phone; I should be able to put whatever the hell I want on it. If they don’t want this kind of stuff in the app store then they have to make an alternative medium for distributing apps available.”
“The don’t HAVE to do anything. It may be YOUR phone, but it’s THEIR store. If you want to look at smut, use your web browser.”
“It isn’t a big deal that they removed this particular content. It is a big deal that they are removing an entire category of content. Whats next, Safari will block any website that Apple deems sexual? I can’t receive any SMS or email on my iPhone if Apple has scanned it and deemed it sexual? In my opinion Apple has switched sides in their famous 1984 commercial a long time ago. They keep doing crap like this because people keep buying their products. Until customers react they have no reason to stop.”
“If they started restricting what websites Safari can browse then that’ll be a big deal. Keeping porn out of their App Store is akin to keeping skin mags out of their brick and mortars.”
As regular readers of my writing surely know, my sympathies lean toward those critical of Apple’s position. In that regard, I note:
• While Apple is certainly entitled to change its mind about its policies, it continues to do so in a way that too often seems unpredictable and capricious. This is not good.
• Why should customer complaints about the sexual content completely determine Apple’s policy here (assuming Apple’s statement can be believed)? What about the likely vast majority of customers who had no complaints? Or the ones who would have preferred that the apps remain in the Store? Don’t their opinions also matter? If I (and enough others) complained that we wanted the apps to return, would Apple do so? I doubt it.
• Apple has a 17+ parental controls Restrictions option. If a parent is concerned about their children accessing these apps, they can enforce this option. Apple could even set up the Store so that restricted apps are in a separate area where you need 17+ access to even see them. Instead, Apple treats all of us as if we are children and Apple is the parent.
I am not saying there should be no limits. But the now-removed apps were fairly mild in content (or they never would have made it into the App Store in the first place). Often, the apps had to be revised several times (as I detail in my above-cited article) before eventually getting an initial acceptance. And yet now they have been summarily removed.
• Reversing a long-standing policy, especially one that forces out previously accepted apps, is especially difficult to navigate successfully. Such changes tend to cause all sorts of havoc for developers. Imagine the time and money that someone like Mr. Pavlou invested in his iPhone apps. At this point, it is now all for naught, as all of his apps are gone from the Store. If you were a developer thinking of doing anything the least bit edgy, would you want to risk it now — without any way of knowing in advance whether or not your app will be accepted or whether your app might be accepted and then later removed? Perhaps. But I believe it is a lot less likely. It’s not just about sexual content. This has happened in other areas as well, with apps that have no sexual content at all. I believe Apple is hurting innovation here.
• The big debate remains: To what extent should Apple be able to maintain 100% control over what apps you can install on your iPhone? Where, if anywhere, are limits on what control Apple has? There are no easy answers here. I clearly have my own bias. If I want Chris Pavlou’s apps on my iPhone (or any of dozens of other prohibited apps, many of which that have no sexual content, that I would like), I want to be able to do so. If not from the App Store, than some other way. To me, the fact that it may be “Apple’s iPhone” in some sense should not matter, any more than it should matter that the computer on my desk is “Apple’s Mac Pro.”
This is a debate that will continue to burn. Unfortunately, this latest incident is just another in a seemingly unending string where Apple throws fuel on the fire.