At the end of August, Apple made a disheartening decision. After NYU grad student Josh Begley submitted Drone+, an iPhone app that maps U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, the company decided that the content was too "objectionable" to be granted shelf space in their App Store.
Begley's app didn't contain graphic images of dismembered children or even classified information. In fact, the same data could be found, in one form or another, within other readily-available apps and on the Web. The decision made little sense, but it smacked of a sort of censorship that left many - myself included - feeling uneasy. Some called for Apple to reverse its decision. Four months later, they haven't said a word.
The news cycle may have moved on from the Drone+ controversy, but others haven't. In mid-November Congressman Dennis Kucinich called on Apple to unblock the app, citing the need for more transparency about how drones are used by the U.S. military.
Apple Needs To Get Out of Censorship Game
Apple's customers pay a toll when they enter the company's mobile ecosystem. When we purchase an iOS device, we willingly cede some freedom and control, allowing Apple to call most of the shots. In exchange, we get a highly polished, hyper-intuitive and very functional user experience. And we love it.
But sometimes Apple's control goes too far. Every now and then, it outgrows its original intent - to maintain a superb user experience - and enters territories that can actually hamper that same experience. Even worse, it can turn a beloved technology brand into a type of censor.
This is admittedly not as scary as a government censoring a news outlet. But iOS is a very widely-adopted platform and millions of customers instinctively turn to the App Store to load their devices with content and functionality. In some countries, iPhone apps play a pivotal role in popular protests against despotic governments, who undoubtedly find the content of those apps to be "objectionable." Why not give them the boot, too?
Apple, some will argue, is free to make decisions like this. And they are. It's not a government after all, and consumers are free to go elsewhere or access whatever information they want via the Web browser. This is true. But what business rationale could Apple possibly have for blocking apps based on their content? As far as I can tell, there isn't any. In fact, stuff like this makes iOS less attractive compared to alternatives like Android.
Why not just stop censoring apps? There would be no discernible degradation in the user experience and many of us would feel less creeped out.
If Apple wants to draw a line at pornography and obscenity, fine. We'll get our porn elsewhere and the App Store will remain a spotless, kid-friendly place. But beyond obscenity and adult material, the content of apps shouldn't factor into whether or not an app is accepted into the App Store.
Apple has not officially responded to Congressional calls to reinstate the Drone+ app. But we'll find out if the company has had a change of heart as early as late January. That's when Begley says he'll resubmit the app for approval. Around the same time, he'll submit an Android version as well.