Why Does Apple Censor its App Store, but Not iTunes?

Ken Ishii/Getty Images

Ken Ishii/Getty Images

While we’ve found lots of things to love about Apple’s iPhone, we have a long list of beefs with the iOS App Store, ranging from its poor discovery options and lack of recommendations to its frustrating search functions and Apple’s stubborn refusal to enable developers to offer trials. Let’s add another complaint to the list: the unfair way that Apple censors the App Store, but not iTunes.

Jeff Grubb reports for VentureBeat that Apple has “repeatedly shown its contempt for gaming, and the company still hasn’t changed.” The latest game that the company has rejected or removed from the App Store is The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, created by developer Tyrone Rodriguez, the founder of Nicalis. The game has developers take on the role of a boy named Isaac, whose mother has trapped him in the basement. Players encounter monsters and other dangers as they try to escape. The game is a satirical retelling of the Biblical story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Apple cites the game’s depiction of violence against children as the reason why it rejected the game. But Grubb notes that this is “another example of the company’s double standard when it comes to video games, as you can find plenty of depictions of violence against children on iTunes. You can even purchase products from convicted abusers on iTunes.” Apple’s treatment of games is problematic because the company controls a huge market — with the App Store accounting for at least half of the $30 billion mobile gaming business — and consumers can’t easily bypass the App Store to download titles that Apple has banned.

As Grubb puts it, that means that consumers in the iOS ecosystem “are at the whims of Apple when it comes to the software they can choose to load on their devices.” And as he points out, that’s typical treatment for Apple, which seems to think of games as a lesser form of media than films, books, or music.

The company has repeatedly censored games based on their content, illustrating that it doesn’t consider games a form of art. In 2013, Apple blocked Endgame: Syria, a title about the real Syrian civil war. Also in 2013, it removed Sweatshop, a game that explores the conditions of working in a third-world manufacturing plant. In 2014, it rejected the sexual education game HappyPlayTime, which encourages women to explore their sexuality.

The company’s willingness to curate and censor apps is made clear in the introduction to its App Store Review Guidelines, which explains, “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.” The document adds that Apple also exercises its right to “reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, ‘I’ll know it when I see it’. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

Among the various guidelines in the document, Apple has placed prohibitions on apps that are “defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm’s way,” though it notes that “professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary.” The guidelines ban “apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed or maimed, shot, stabbed, tortured or injured,” and “apps that depict violence or abuse of children.”

Apple also stipulates that “‘enemies’ within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity,” and adds that “apps involving realistic depictions of weapons in such a way as to encourage illegal or reckless use of such weapons” will be rejected from the App Store. So will apps that “present excessively objectionable or crude content” and “apps that are primarily designed to upset or disgust users.”

The guidelines also explain that apps containing pornographic material, a category which Apple turns to Webster’s Dictionary to define, will be rejected. The App Store will also not accept apps that contain “references or commentary about a religious, cultural or ethnic group that are defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence.”

None of those reasons for rejection make it into Apple’s latest data on common reasons for app rejections, but all that means is that Apple rejects apps more often for straightforward reasons — poor user interfaces, crashes and bugs, incomplete information, etc. — than for content that it thinks doesn’t have a place in the App Store. What’s more unfair than the company’s decision to censor apps and games is its refusal to apply the same level of censorship to the other kinds of content sold on its platforms: the music, movies, TV shows, and books you can buy through iTunes.

On Apple’s “Working with iTunes” website, the company offers guidelines for people who want to sell books, TV shows, movies, and music. None of the guidelines and frequently asked questions for individuals and companies selling such forms of media address the kind of content that a book, a song, a TV show, or a movie can include. Apple’s choice to censor app and game developers, but not those who create other kinds of content, is not only unfair but is dismissive of games and their power as a form of media and art.

If the company isn’t careful, the power that Apple exerts over the App Store could have the effect of pressuring developers to avoid certain topics and stop taking chances. The company’s choice to repeatedly censor apps and games with something interesting to say is a real problem for the App Store, a platform that may end up limiting the development of mobile gaming instead of elevating and celebrating it.

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