I've read a few stories in recent months about Apple's new self-appointed role as a censor and preserver of morality. Apparently Steve Jobs believes they have a "moral responsibility" to keep porn off the iPhone, which in itself is pretty fucked up, but gets even more problematic when you take a look at the type of apps that are being rejected because of "objectionable content."
First, there's Mark Fiore's political cartoons. Following Apple's rejection of his app on grounds that it "ridicules public figures," Fiore went on to win a Pulitzer, which brought some well-deserved attention to the issue. Steve Job's attempt at damage control, instead of apologizing for the unfair rejection, was to call Fiore a liar.
Last week, Brigid Alverson at Robot 6 pointed out several rather questionable decisions by Apple about which comics to distribute. Of particular concern to me is the way that the rules seem to be stricter when it comes to gay content.
Tom Bouden's adaptaton of The Importance of Being Earnest was rejected from the app store on the basis of half a dozen images, all showing two men kissing or embracing but not having sex, and none depicting full frontal nudity. Apple finally allowed the comic with big black rectangles over the "offending" images.
Alverson concludes that Apple's double standard may have more to do with large publisher vs. small press than with homophobia, but that doesn't really reassure me.
Yesterday, she reported on another case of Apple censorship, this time involving an app for the webcomic Ulysses "Seen," an adaptation of James Joyce's novel. This time, the objectionable content was the visual depiction of a flaccid penis. Here, the creators of the comic managed to get around Apple's content restrictions by altering the offending image, giving us a close-up of the character that moves the objectionable body part off-panel. They reason that users can click on links to the website where the unaltered image is still available.
I guess this seems like a good compromise when you're a struggling artist trying to get your work distributed on a popular platform and you need all the exposure you can get. But to me this is even sadder than the Oscar Wilde comic, because by altering their comic they've hidden more than a penis – they've also hidden Apple's censorship. I would opt instead for drawing attention to it: put a big black box over panel with a note: "This comic has been censored by Apple. The device you purchased doesn't allow you to view original art as it was intended to be seen."
People are quick to point out that you can still access porn or these comics on the iPad by simply opening the websites in the internet browser, but that's completely besides the point. The way people access content is changing and Apple's app store is an important player in these changes. People say it's a sound business decision for them to want to control which apps are available on their hardware, because it helps them control their brand's image, but when you start talking about the "moral implications" of porn, censoring nudity, and discriminating against gay content, it's no longer just a business issue. It's political.
And it's dangerous, especially because not enough people are aware of it. Americans are obsessed with the idea of free speech and defending the First Amendment. And yet this kind of sneaky censorship is considered business as usual. That's the double standard that I can't wrap my mind around.
UPDATE: See also this post by Rich Johnston over at Bleeding Cool.