This post first appeared on the Ferenstein Wire, a syndicated news service; it has been edited. For inquiries, please email author and publisher Gregory Ferenstein

It’s easy to see why Apple—following in the footsteps of retailers and tech companies like Google, Amazon and Etsy—wants to purge its App Store of applications depicting the Confederate flag. What’s less clear is why the company would then leave Nazi Swastikas still standing prominently in some games. 

See also: Google Play Developer Policy Updates In A Nutshell: Don’t Be A Jerk

The choice to ban a symbol of slavery, but not of mass genocide, highlights how tech companies struggle to apply hate speech guidelines — often with strange inconsistency. It’s obviously a gray area, one that could pose a real conundrum for app developers forced to comply with confusing rules. 

Here’s an example: Apple, in its haste to remove apps and games bearing the Confederate flag, has even banned popular Civil War re-enactment games that display the flag in historical context, such as Civil War 1863

In other words, at the moment, Apple allows me kill virtual Nazis. But not Confederate generals. 

What Constitutes Hate Speech Or Symbols? 

According to gaming blog Kotaku, Apple’s message to the director of these Civil War Games, Andrew Mulholland, states: “We are writing to notify you that your app has been removed from the App Store because it includes images of the Confederate flag used in offensive and mean-spirited ways.” 

The eviction appears to be swift. Indeed, I looked for the game in the App Store, and couldn’t find it (as of this writing). 

Maxim Zasov of Game Labs, a developer of the Civil War Game Ultimate General: Gettysburg explained in a statement why he would not remove the flag to comply with Apple’s new rules.

We receive a lot of letters of gratitude from American teachers who use our game in history curriculum to let kids experience one of the most important battles in American history from the Commander’s perspective…

Therefore we are not going to amend the game’s content and Ultimate General: Gettysburg will no longer be available on AppStore. We really hope that Apple’s decision will achieve the desired results. We can’t change history, but we can change the future.

Apple, like Facebook and Google, have a long history of restricting speech deemed offensive or hateful. Google famously removed a game simulating the bombing of Gaza, and Apple removes “gay cure” apps. In trying to restrict pictures of bare nipples, Facebook has struggled with breastfeeding photos, initially banning them and then later loosening the policy in the face of ensuing criticism. 

Removing hate speech or imagery is no easy task. Tech companies manage an unwieldy volume of user-generated posts, images and other media. Staff of even very profitable tech companies are vastly outnumbered, compared to the public at large. Applying algorithms or blanket rules is an efficient way of dealing with issues, but the result tends to err on the side of censorship. 

Censorship rules are especially problematic, as websites, mobile apps and social networks become the dominant channels for free speech. Ultimately, tech companies are powerful new gatekeepers of the 1st Amendment, and their decisions have profound implications.

I have reached out to Apple and have not yet received a response to clarify its position on the Confederate flag vs. other symbols associated with hate groups. 

For more stories, subscribe to the Ferenstein Wire newsletter here.

Update: Late Thursday, Apple confirmed to TechCrunch that it is in the process of evaluating and restoring certain apps, like games and educational apps. The site posted, “The company says it’s working with developers to quickly get their games reinstated to the App Store.” The company’s goal is to “remove those titles that could offend,” at its discretion. 

gregory ferenstein

subscriber