I was hoping to wake up to different headlines this morning. Something along the line of "Apple Apologizes, Accepts Drone+ iPhone App" would have sufficed. Alas, last week's news remains a stubborn reality: Apple thinks that an app highlighting publicly available data about war is "objectionable" and refuses to allow it into the App Store. The event illustrates one of Apple's very worst tendencies.
The app in question is Drone+, a project by NYU grad student Josh Begley that displays an interactive map of recent U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. After two prior rejections by Apple for reasons having to do with utility and design, the app was nixed a third time for containing "objectionable content."
The decision was a bit of a head-scratcher, considering that a very similar feature was already included in the Guardian's iPhone app and that scattered information about U.S. drone strikes can be found throughout dozens of news apps that are readily available on the App Store.
Quality Control vs. Censorship
To be fair, this decision is not as troubling as it would be if Apple were a government or a publisher in the traditional sense. Still, it's a new kind of gatekeeper, and it holds the keys to a platform used by millions of people around the world. While not as horrifyingly Orwellian as it could be, the fact that the biggest company in U.S. history makes decisions about which content is too "objectionable" for its customers is unsettling.
Apple has every right to maintain strict guidelines as to what can go into the App Store. This is what keeps the experience so smooth and beloved by consumers. If a developer submits an app with crummy functionality or a confusing UI, Apple should reject it. But if a developer submits an app with politically sensitive words or pictures, so long as it's not obscene (pornography in the Apple Store is a debate for another day), in violation of copyright law or libelous, the company should back off.
This is a lesson Apple should have learned in 2010, when it rejected an app submitted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist because it ridiculed public figures. That, of course, is something newspapers have done freely for centuries, and the blatant disregard for free speech resulted in a PR headache for Apple.
In that case, the company reversed its stance and accepted the app. It should do the same for Drone+. Then it should tweak its submission policies to get out of the business of censorship.
25 Billion Apps Later, Things Have Changed
Things have changed since Apple launched the App Store in 2008. For one thing, the platform has become wildly successful and iOS device sales now make up a huge majority of Apple's record-breaking profits. More than 25 billion apps have been downloaded from the App Store.
Meanwhile, we've seen social media and mobile technology play a crucial role in political uprisings in the Arab world and beyond. Those events have been sparked by unrest due to economic and political conditions but, in case after case, networked communications have stoked the flames.
Last year in Syria, antigovernment activists began using an iPhone app to disseminate news, maps, photos and videos about the conflict in a country that doesn't exactly rank highly for its press freedom. Mobile tech in the hands of Syrian dissidents proved enough of a nuisance that the government banned the iPhone in late 2011, presumably to quash content that the regime found, um, objectionable.
This example raises a few questions. First, why are pins on a map more objectionable than photos and video clips from a war zone? Why does content that effectively agitates for one government to be overthrown make the cut, while content that may make another government look bad (depending on one's own perspective) doesn't? Is Apple taking sides in international conflicts? Perhaps more disturbing is the notion that, were Apple to apply these standards consistently, apps like the one used by Syrian dissidents - and perhaps some news apps - would be barred from the App Store as well.
Apple Risks Losing Consumer Trust - For What?
Censorship doesn't help consumers, but it doesn't do Apple any favors either. Apple is at the top of the food chain when it comes to tech companies. Its profits are soaring. Consumers' mouths are watering for the upcoming iPhone 5, iPad Mini and whatever other polished, connected gadget the company may launch in the foreseeable future. People will stand in line for those products whether or not Apple accepts or rejects any particular app.
Even so, the company would be unwise to take the trust of its customers for granted. People get queasy when they perceive censorship, no matter where they stand politically. A series of news stories highlighting Apple's insensitivity to freedom of expression could eat away at public trust, even in a brand as bullet-proof as Apple's.
Consumers' lives are increasingly connected, ever more deeply embedded in mobile devices and social networks. These are pretty radical changes, and they're happening more quickly than many people (not to mention industries and governments) can respond. Some consumers are already beginning to grow uncomfortable with Facebook's privacy policies, Google's targeted advertising, and other cases in which, whether justified or not, technology starts to feel a little creepy. Twitter takes protecting privacy and free speech very seriously, and even if most users don't notice or care yet, that stance will serve the company well as social media continues to part and parcel of our daily lives.
Further, there's no business rationale for blocking apps like this. Does it really degrade the iPhone or iPad experience if people can download an app that shows them where U.S. drones are killing civilians in Pakistan? People who care about that information will download the app, and those who don't will continue playing Angry Birds and reading Flipboard.
Apple is a stickler when it comes to design, user experience, legal concerns, and overall quality. It has a legitimate right to protect its brand by rejecting adult-oriented apps. But when it comes to news, commentary and hard data, Apple has more to lose than to gain from rejecting content it doesn't like.
Drone photo by Charles McCain.