Apple's Walled Garden Is Still Censorship With A Human Face

Every geek worth his or her salt knows that Wednesday is new comic day, a happy day for exploring their local comics store and getting their pick lists filled with glorious four-color adventures. For some, this means purchasing electronic copies of their favorite books online, to be read on their computer, tablet or even smartphones.

But today's experience will be marred for fans of Brian K. Vaughan's Saga: the creator of the series from Image Comics has released a statement indicating that Apple would be banning sales of Saga #12 in the popular ComiXology app and any other third-party comic app due to depicted sexual scenes.

"Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps," Vaughan said in a statement posted at Image.

If you're not familiar with Vaughan's work, either on Saga or the award-winning series Y: The Last Man, then you would know that when Vaughan writes a series meant for mature readers, then it's definitely going to be mature. Already in Saga, for instance, there have been scenes and depictions that I would definitely not want my younger kids reading.

That's what makes this decision by Apple to prevent the sale of Saga #12 all the more odd. If they were being consistent, then they would have blocked the sale of Saga altogether. The only thing different about this particular issue's scene? It is explicitly depicting sex between multiple male partners.

This is not the only thing that's odd with Apple's decision: while the company has not been shy about banning apps in their App Store that have content or activities that could be construed as violent or sexual in nature, this may be the first time they have curated independent content sold through an app (and, by extension, Apple, since they take a cut from everything bought in iOS). But, according to the App Store Review Guidelines, independent content, such as books or music, is not supposed to be curated.

"We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store."

This hasn't stopped Apple from blocking the sale of Saga #12 within ComiXology, even though this issue falls squarely under the definition of a book.

It gets even weirder: according to Vaughan, you can buy the very same issue directly from Apple itself.

"If all else fails, you might be able to find SAGA #12 in Apple’s iBookstore, which apparently sometimes allows more adult material to be sold than through its apps. Crazy, right?," Vaughan wrote.

At the end of the day, from a practical point of view, Apple's decision does nothing to actually prevent readers from reading this issue on their iOS device. You can still purchase the issue on ComiXology's website and have it synchronize to your iPad or iPhone. This is what I do every week anyway, because it's faster to make one big purchase on the site rather than tap "Purchase" and "Buy" 15 or 20 times.

Or, as Vaughan said, you can just get the comic right inside the iBook app. Which I would not recommend, because this is usually a sub-optimal user experience (code for: "sucks"). And then there's the hard copy available at you local comic retailer.

Or (and here's a wild thought) don't buy the issue. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples' use of graphic imagery is not what this book is about, but rather elements of a larger story. Still, it is certainly the right of any consumer to choose to not purchase something if they find it offensive. Or return it and ask for a refund.

What Apple has done here, however, is taken that choice away from the consumer. They are not letting them discover new content and deciding for themselves if it's good or bad. They are not letting consumers choose to impose Restrictions on apps that might display content that some would find objectionable for their children.

I have my own thoughts on Vaughan's use of language and imagery in his works. I am personally uncomfortable with any explicit depictions of sex and violence but I also recognize that sometimes as a reader I'm supposed to have my perceptions and opinions challenged. That's true for written works, music or art. If I consume literature that only makes me comfortable, what do I learn? How am I challenged?

But if I consume literature that only someone else finds comfortable, that's even worse.

Apple's values are not always mine or yours, and it's past time to start noticing the walls of the garden in which Apple holds iOS users.

Image courtesy of Image Comics.