Tuesday, February 23, 2010

At the intersection of branding and censorship, Apple acts to protect its brand by cleaning up the iTunes app store

Apple recently began deleting applications from its iTunes app store that the company considers objectionable -- that is, that contains "overtly sexual content".  The move has been received differently by consumers, developers and media. As one MacRumors reader said, "Good. You have to draw the line somewhere."

"It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see," Phil; Schiller, head of Apple marketing told the New York Times. So far Apple has removed around 5,000 apps from the iTunes store based on "objectionable material".

Developers are not happy with the move, though it should be said that developers had been increasingly unhappy with Apple app approval process.

Jon Atherton, the developer behind Wobble iBoobs, received a letter from Apple stating "Your application, Wobble iBoobs (Premium Uncensored), contains content that we had originally believed to be suitable for distribution. However, we have recently received numerous complaints from our customers about this type of content, and have changed our guidelines appropriately."

Followed by the hammer: "We have decided to remove any overtly sexual content from the App Store, which includes your application."

TechCrunch's M.G. Siegler is not a happy camper. "Apple's hypocrisy with regard to the App Store is something I know well. Several times last year I wrote about Apple allowing apps like "Asian Boobs" and upskirt apps into the app store while rejecting things such as satirical apps that mocked public figures. It was ridiculous." Siegler goes on to point out that "big publishers" like Sports Illustrated and Playboy still have apps in the store despite the fact that both apps seem to violate Apple's new rules. (Sports Illustrated's 2010 swimsuit app is the app in question here.)

For media industry, the issue will ultimately boil down to censorship and equal access for media companies. With Apple focused on cleaning up its app store there are few that will vocally object to Apple's actions. Yet in its rush to fill its app store with raw volume, Apple's approval process has often seemed random. Few would argue that the app store has more than its share of knock-offs and worthless apps. (How many "flashlight" apps are really necessary?)

But the more apps Apple pulls the more "the authorities" may think it is time to look under the hood. As one developer stated, the app approval process goes like this: 1) develop app; 2) submit app; 3) app rejected; 4) blogs raise a stink; 5) app approved.

This issue will only increase in importance over time. The soon to appear iPad will function much like the iPhone, with consumers filling up their tablets with applications drawn from the iTunes store. If Apple has the same level of success with their tablet as they have with the iPhone, the device will soon be recognized as a major distributor of media, and the rules will change. Should mobile media be regulated in the same fashion as broadcast media? With consumers able to stream content to their phones and tablets, should computer companies be treated like broadcasters? or cable companies that are largely unregulated? The time this issue may come to the forefront would be 2012, naturally. (Presidential election year.)