Apple’s App Store, Porn & “Censorship”

by on February 20, 2010 · 41 comments

Oh my, here we go again with bogus accusations of “censorship” flying about a private company’s efforts to self-regulate its own media platform. Yesterday over at Silicon Alley Insider, Nick Saint penned a piece on how, “Apple’s War On Porn Is Just Getting Started.” And then over at TechCrunch, Jason Kincaid wrote about “Why Apple’s New Ban Against Sexy Apps Is Scary.” That yielded a flurry of similarly-titled rants about Apple’s supposedly totalitarian ways for taking away our new-found inalienable human right to unfettered porn and adult entertainment applications via our iPhones.  To Mr. Saint, Mr. Kincaid, and the many others who apparently believe Apple is the reincarnation of Big Brother for self-regulating their own Apps Store, all I can say is: Grow up!

Here are a few things they need to consider:

  1. What Apple decides to do with its application store, and what it chooses to provide in it, is Apple’s own business—quite literally. Like a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer, they can make policies about what types of content might be deemed too sensitive for the broad community of customers they serve. WalMart, for example, doesn’t carry certain types of music in their stores.  If customers don’t like what those retailers are doing, there’s always another place for them to take their business and find what they are looking for.
  2. When it comes to the Apple controversy, we are generally talking about porn. Note to Mr. Saint and Mr. Kincaid and other whiners… there are plenty of other places to find porn on the Net! Seriously, have you looked?
  3. A private company’s decision to self-censor by not carrying something in their store is not even in the same universe as the sort of censorship we see government officials engage in, which blocks all content from all platforms. There is no escape from that sort of all-encompassing censorship. 
  4. Did I mention that there’s plenty of porn on the Net? OK, just checking. (Really, there’s lots.)
  5. It’s important to realize that if Apple did not take some steps to self-regulate it’s App Store for the really nasty, envelop-pushing stuff, it would lead to enormous pressure from many parents and regulatory advocates for Congress to step in start regulating the Internet ecosystem. Better that Apple and other retailers choose to self-regulate than to have Congress and the nanny state start controlling online speech.
  6. Finally, uh… why do you own an iPhone again? You don’t have to, you know.  I’ve been going round and round with Jonathan Zittrain and his disciples about this point over the past couple of years when they complain about Apple’s heavy-handed control of the App Store or the iPhone itself.  Sorry, but I have little sympathy in light of the fact that (a) Apple’s App Store has over 100,000 apps in 20 different categories to choose from, so it’s not like there’s really any shortage of other stuff to choose from and, (b) there are many other non-Apple options on the market from which to choose if you don’t like Apple’s policies on porn apps.  Get yourself a Android-based phone or something else. (Like Apple, Google bars the use of its apps store, the Android Market, for porn apps. But Google does allow users to install a separate apps store for adult apps, called MiKandi. MiKandi promises Blackberry and Windows Mobile marketplaces soon.)
  7. (I can’t resist…) Once more, all this whining is about porn! There’s tons of it online! Go get your rocks off somewhere else besides the Apple Apps Store!  Gheesh.

[P.S. Lest I need to prove my First Amendment credentials to repel the eventual attacks from those who might accuse me of being a prude, please read this and watch this.]

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    How generous of you, Adam, not to rub in the irony that Zittrain himself, despite his decrying the iPhone for its supposedly “generativity-killing” closedness, owns an iPhone himself!

    Now, as a practical matter, it's not easy to view porn on mobile browsers, especially since they don't currently support Flash, so video playing is limited to videos you either (i) download or (ii) stream from the web in a special app, such as for YouTube. Since Flash is used by the vast majority of video streaming sites, including for porn, this means that the abundance of online porn isn't particularly accessible on a mobile phone. Scrolling through images, pornographic or otherwise, isn't terribly easy either, especially since even fast data networks suffer from much greater latency than fixed broadband services.

    But Adobe recently announced that Flash 10.1 would be coming to Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile 7, Nokia S60/Symbian and Palm WebOS. While it appears that Microsoft won't be rolling out Flash for Windows Mobile 7 anytime soon, it does appear to be planning to do so at some point in the near future, and Google is already hard at work on rolling out Flash for Android sometime soon. Once these platforms roll out Flash, the Apps stores will no longer have any meaningful “gatekeeper” control over easily accessing video content, since users will be able to view or stream whatever they like in the browser.

    But today, the historical moment when restrictions on Apple's app store had anything like the censorious effect claimed by Apple's critics has passed (even assuming one believed “private censorhip” isn't a contradiction in terms). Specifically, I'd say it passed sometime in the last year, when Android became a more viable option and, even more specifically, on this issue of mobile access to porn, on November 30, 2009, when MiKandi launched. Sure, it's true, that Android users can't access all their favorite porn sites, and MiKandi app offerings are limited, but more are coming—so to speak! And when Android phone gets Flash this year, this important distinction between mobile Internet browsing and desktop Internet browsing will largely disappear.

    (I only hope the wireless data networks are prepares for the upsurge in video streaming on their networks that will, to be sure, be driven largely by mobile-browsing porn sites.)

    So… who really cares what Apple does with their app store? Yes, I understand some app users with long-term contracts may be itching for porn right now, and don't to pay an early termination fee to jump to Android but, well, too damn bad! You may have a right to access porn if you want to, but that certainly doesn't give you a right to force Apple to offer it to you in the most convenient way possible.

    Finally, it's worth noting here that Apple has not removed sexually-oriented social networking apps, such as Grindr, a mobile gay-cruising app from the iPhone store. I'd be a little more concerned about Apple removing such apps, whose functionality is harder to replicate from the browser, than simply removing apps for viewing pornography.

  • Ryan Radia

    I wonder why Apple doesn't implement a policy similar to how Google handles SafeSearch: Make porn apps invisible by default, but accessible if a special explicit option is checked.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Adam, I think you're simplifying things a bit here. This isn't just about Apple's decision not to carry porn on its app store. It's about Apple's attempt to prevent me from running pornographic applications (and a variety of other types of applications) on my iPhone at all. My iPhone is my property, which I paid good money for. And I don't recall agreeing not to install pornographic apps on it. Moreover, Apple is using the coercive powers of the DMCA to prevent third parties from providing applications to me.

    I don't want to get into a semantic debate about whether this constitutes “censorship” or not. But I think two things are clear. First, this is a matter of public policy concern, because Apple enjoys the level of control it does only because Congress dramatically extended the power of copyright holders. And second, even leaving aside the policy issues, people are entitled to criticize private companies when they behave in obnoxious ways. I don't see anything in the TechCrunch post calling for mandatory porn on the iTunes Store. TechCrunch was doing what tech journalists are supposed to do—vigorously criticize companies who treat their customers poorly. I don't see the problem.

  • http://twitter.com/mclPete Pete McLaughlin

    Neither article you discuss even mentions censorship. Saint's is a pretty straight recap of what happened. Kincaid's is about the danger of developing for a channel whose rules and policies can change without notice, even after approval.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    “Treating their customers poorly”? Because they don't allow porn apps? Give me a break. I'm sorry, you'll need to give me something more than that before I am sympathetic to your sudden Ralph Naderism.

    And you don't want to discuss the semantics of censorship? Why not, that's what this is all about. I know you've read enough of the blogosphere chatter about Apple's iPhone policies to know that's exactly what people are saying. And yet there is a world of difference between the two, and even if you understand that a lot of others seem not to.

    Third, you haven't addressed my point about Apple — as a market leader — likely needing to self-regulate some of the edgier stuff in the App Store to head off actual censorship. Now, you could claim that that's a fight we should have and might be able to win on First Amendment grounds, but you haven't said that here.

    Finally, do you really think I don't believe that “people are entitled to criticize private companies when they behave in obnoxious ways”? Please. Of course I think they have that right. But what they are whining about in this case is beyond absurd. (Yes, absurd. I know you hate that word from our fight about Tim Wu's absurd op-ed about cartels so I am using it again!)

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    The point of my post above was that I do understand why, as a practical matter, it’s a real inconvenience for a porn-lover not to be able to get a porn app on the iPhone. I think we can have a legitimate debate about what Apple needs to do to make this limitation transparent to its customers. But, as I noted above, users now have lots of choices for other platforms that either allow apps stores with porn (e.g., Google’s Android) or simply those that support Mobile Flash. Again, the practical importance of the apps store from a user interface perspective will diminish significantly when mobile Flash comes out this year for the various mobile OSes (except Apple, sadly) because users will be able to watch porn video through their mobile browser without needing a porn-specific app. (Of course, it’s still possible that an app might handle scrolling through photos better.)

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    The point of my post above was that I do understand why, as a practical matter, it's a real inconvenience for a porn-lover not to be able to get a porn app on the iPhone. I think we can have a legitimate debate about what Apple needs to do to make this limitation transparent to its customers. But, as I noted above, users now have lots of choices for other platforms that either allow apps stores with porn (e.g., Google's Android) or simply those that support Mobile Flash. Again, the practical importance of the apps store from a user interface perspective will diminish significantly when mobile Flash comes out this year for the various mobile OSes (except Apple, sadly) because users will be able to watch porn video through their mobile browser without needing a porn-specific app. (Of course, it's still possible that an app might handle scrolling through photos better.)

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    I suspect part of the reason for this is that, if Apple did allow porn apps, they'd also be expected to build in special controls intended either to let parents block their children from accessing porn apps OR to somehow age-verify users before allowing them to access adult apps. While those might be good features to include, they're probably also very difficult to implement from a technical matter. So it's not hard to understand why the easier solution is simply to ban porn apps.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Fair enough, Pete, but as Adam notes in his response to Tim, the word “censorship” gets tossed bandied about pretty freely in these debates. For example, my Google search for <apple censor porn “app store”> turned up 800,000+ hits and 200+ news hits.

  • WilhelmmReuch

    The examples of banned apps I have seen hasnt been much sexual or even pornographic. More tacky with a degrading view of women.

    Moreover Aple has only banned it from showing up in their store. It is not banned from the iphone – just use the Safari browser to visit as many porn sites you want.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Third, you haven't addressed my point about Apple — as a market leader — likely needing to self-regulate some of the edgier stuff in the App Store to head off actual censorship.

    Adam, this is another reason why Steve Jobs's control-freakery is a bad idea. If the iPhone were an open platform and people were allowed to install non-iTunes-Store apps on their iPhones, then no one would be complaining about Apple's iTunes store policies. Apple could be as censorious as it liked and customers who were dissatisfied would have other choices. After all, there are pornographic apps available for Mac and Windows, and no one is pushing for FCC regulation of those platforms. But when Apple sets up a single app store that everyone has to use, that store becomes a tempting target of regulation.

  • Eoin

    Good article. I am amused by the HateBoys who tend to say

    1) Apple is engaging in internet censorship, and then go on to say
    2) Apple is only 8% of the market ( or < 20% for smart phones). A good deal less of all phones, of course.

    So which is it? It is possible for a monopoly provider to engage in something akin to – but not exactly like – Government type censorship but it is not possible for a minority player to engage in censorship. Period.

    Were MicroSoft to ban a technology from WIndows it would have a large ripple effect. The dominance of the OS market by MS means that people have to buy Windows to get all the software they need easily ( by that I mean in shops, online, not by doing a linux install). I prefer OS X but I have recommended Windows to some relatives precisely for that reason, they need to be sheep because everybody else is. Of course MS have done something similar by forcing it's suppliers to install IE and other applications, the dominance of most of Microsoft's application suite is due to it's monopoly.

    Banning flash from the iPad, or iPhone, or banning porn from either has no effect on anybody because the consumer can easily shop elsewhere. ( Not that any phone software distribution model – with the exception of the Android model – is open, and we'll see how long Android's policy lasts, probably until the first major network outage.)

    In other news Border's bookstores does not sell porn. But the sex shop down the road does. Anti-Border's hateboys not complaining about borders and their “censorship” policy probably because they realise in this case that they can go elsewhere.

    The logic is the same with the iPhone, which comes with an App Store attached.( Even then, technical people can get over that by jail breaking. So you can have app porn, but Mom cant, but she probably doesnt want it.)

    The same nonsense, as I have alluded to, gets the HateBoy's knickers in a twist about Flash – a non-standard beloved by nobody except Flash devs – a plugin which routinely accelerates my CPU to 80-100% on pages which are doing nothing more than blinking some rubbish on the top right of my screen. I get less cpu hogging from games.

    However if you love Flash dont buy the iPhone, or the iPad. You still buy a Mac, flash runs on 100% of Desktop OSes. Clearly this is not the same as MS banning Flash.

    Despite the reality of this situation, the lack of anything that could effect anybody who didn't want to be affected – the clear and obvious FUD of it all – hateboys are running around the internet waving their hands in the AIR SHOUTING INANITIES ABOUT CENSORSHIP AND HOW APPLE IS LIKE NAZI GERMANY AND COMMUNISM ALL MIXED INTO ONE.

    The rules on the App Store have always banned erotic, or porn content. It is in the agreement. Apple, or rather ( I suspect) individual testers on the App Store relaxed their policy on what that meant by allowing some partial nudity, and then it snowballed. Now they have re-clarified but it was always there in black and white. There really is nothing to see here, except hateboy fanaticism.

  • NotTellinYou!

    I love this people going on and on and on, when this is no different than going into say Target! You won't find magazines of “Bikini Babes” but you will find Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. You won't find porn but you will find CD's with “Mature Lyrics”, and games with “Mature Content”.

    Look, the fact is this stuff has NEVER made sense from the movie ratings system to the situation at 7-Eleven to the above at Target. But that's just the way it is! Get over it!

    The issue is worse for Apple in that unlike 7-Eleven or Target there is no cashier that can verify, or is supposed to verify, age. So you give your kid an iPhone and then what?

    What's really sad is all these people that I guess can't meet a real girl in a bikini and have to get an app to see them. Here's a free clue! Go on line, download all the bikini girls you want, thousands if you like, load them into iPhoto and sync! There! You have more bikini girls than you ever imagined!

    Problem solved…and I didn't even charge you 99 cents!

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    As a consumer, Tim, I agree with you—which is why I kept chugging along on my clunky old Windows Mobile Phone for several years after the iPhone came out, just waiting for a more open platform and the right phone. When Verizon began offering the Droid in November, I pounced on it—and haven't looked back since. Problem solved.

    So I'm not sure what you think should be done here. Should Apple not have the right to be open? Again, I hear you that you don't like their policy and you think it may invite regulation, but should they be forced to accept your model of openness? I certainly hope you'd agree with us that those who would argue that the First Amendment somehow restricts Apple here because the app store has become a kind of “public forum” are just trying to turn a shield against government into a sword by which government gets to go around imposing a particular set of policy preferences on private actors.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Well, we could start by repealing the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions so I have the option to use third-party app stores.

    Beyond that, what I think should be done is that private-sector media outlets like TechCrunch should write articles criticizing Apple when they behave badly. Adam doesn't have to agree with those criticisms, of course, but Adam seems to feel it's somehow beyond the pale to criticize Apple's policies.

  • lrd555

    There’s a really simple solution for this: Make a category for NC 17 apps– for adults only requiring some kind of certification via credit card or something like that.

    Everyone wins and the racy is stuff gets to compete in its own category.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Again, Tim, I have no problem with people raising legitimate complaints about Apple's over-zealous ways when it comes to managing devices, applications, or whatever else. However, some of us who do not like Apple products or services for that reason vote with our wallets and take our business elsewhere and don't cop the sort of entitlement mentality all too many people have out there about what they should have access to on various devices or platforms.

    Part of what I am responding to here is the way people completely blow things out of proportion when it comes to what they can get on their iPhone. I mean, seriously, over 100,000 apps available in 77 countries with billions of downloads… that's not a bad track record. And, again, I say that as someone who is not an Apple fanboy. And, yet, in this case we once again have people raising bogus Zittrainian corporate Big Brother fears about a very narrow sliver of content–porn–that is widely available elsewhere. What, exactly, is so “scary” (as Kincaid put it) about Apple self-regulating in this way? If Apple didn't, there would be hell to pay with the huge number of customers who don't want that stuff available on their phones. (For similar reasons, video game platform developers refuse to carry any adult-oriented content on their consoles.) And, again, that would lead to serious pressure for government to regulate online content.

    Finally, even in the absence of the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions, Apple would still likely take steps to block 3rd party apps that violated their terms of service. I can appreciate your point about how the law in this case should not be used to facilitate that process, but Apple still has other ways to try to thwart applications they do not approve of on their device/platform. Again, not saying I approve of those games, but that's their choice.

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  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    I guess I don't see how it's an “entitlement mentality” to want to run the applications of my choice on a gadget I paid good money for. Also:

    If Apple didn't, there would be hell to pay with the huge number of customers who don't want that stuff available on their phones.

    Really? Apple doesn't limit my ability to run pornographic apps on my Mac. Is Apple catching hell from its customers over that?

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    You say… “Really? Apple doesn't limit my ability to run pornographic apps on my Mac. Is Apple catching hell from its customers over that?”

    It's a fair point, but the two contexts are somewhat different. Apple doesn't control the Wild West of the Web that you can access through your browser while using your Mac. But filters and other screening/monitoring tools were developed to help deal with that problem. When it comes to the walled garden of content that Apple does control, however, it has a different level of control and responsibilities. That is exacerbated in the mobile environment where (a) Apple has even more control over the device in question and (b) kids who have them can access content more ubiquitously away from their parent's control. This is why some device makers intentionally cripple hardware that has a broader audience that includes many children. Again, the complaint people are lodging against Apple in this case is nearly identical to that which some critics have levied against video game console and software developers for not allowing “AO” games on mainstream gaming devices. I discussed some of these issues in this old essay:

    http://techliberation.com/2008/03/17/video-game

  • harperlieblich

    Some of the apps that got pulled where exercise apps that showed women in workout clothes. This kind of thing is worth reporting on because it's a factor on both customer and developers decision to get involved in the iPhone ecosystem. Of course it's Apple's prerogative but that doesn't make the discussion any less relevant.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Yes, in one sense I agree. And, because we are talking about mobile phones here, a subscription, contract, and billing account are already in play. So, at least in theory, that should make a solution like that a little easier.

    Of course, not all web content or online apps are rated, so that's something either Apple will need to start doing or work with others to come up with a standard. Eventually this could happen. But even if it does, Apple may STILL take steps to block access for “NC-17″-like content if they feel it's not right for their platform. Again, as I note before, content IS rated in the gaming industry and yet all 3 console makers refuse to allow “AO” (adults only) rated game content on their consoles. They do this even though their consoles all include chipsets that allow parents (like me) to block video game and movie content according to the metadata included in media played on those devices. Basically, the game console makers don't want their to be any chance that the really edgy stuff might be seen by kids. And I have a feeling that will be Apple's position going forward, too, even if they do devise ratings and parental control solutions.

  • Ryan Radia

    Tim, as much as I despise the DMCA anti-circumvention provisions, I'm not so sure the iPhone app store would be much less controversial even if DRM circumvention technologies were legal. I say this because in practice, the DMCA seems to be pretty easy to get around from a user's perspective, and 'illegal” circumvention software is widely available online for nearly every major platform, including the iPhone.

    I'm not an iPhone owner, but it's my understanding that it's not too complicated to jailbreak an iPhone and install third-party apps on it. While Apple has declared Cydia and similar unlicensed iPhone app stores to be illegal, nearly a year after Cydia's launch, it's still up and running (right?) even though Apple presumably could have taken Cydia to court. My guess is that Apple realizes that trying to stop jailbreakers is a losing battle and isn't too worried about a handful of iPhone owners running rogue apps. Also, even without the DMCA, Apple can still implement technological countermeasures to prevent jailbreaking and deny the warranty of iPhone owners who've tampered with the OS.

  • http://www.timothyblee.com/ Tim Lee

    Ryan, that's a great point. I agree that the DMCA hasn't prevented these tools from being created and distributed. And you're right that we can't be sure what a post-DMCA iPhone app market would look like.

    However, what the DMCA has clearly done is discourage reputable companies and organizations from developing third-party iPhone technology. The threat of liability didn't prevent Cydia from coming on the market, but I suspect it has made it harder for Jay Freeman to raise the capital he might need to make it a mainstream product. Similarly for Jon Johanssen, who is working to build better interoperability tools.

    Most users aren't interested in running “hacker” tools. They'll only install software if it's produced by a reputable company. The DMCA pushes these tools into the grey market, which doesn't prevent the “bad guys” from using them, but it does subtly discourage ordinary users from doing so. I think Apple is happy to have these companies around as long as they remain at the margins of the marketplace. The threat of litigation helps keep them there.

    Finally, it's important to remember the Bastiat point about what is seen and what is not seen. There may be entrepreneurs out there who would like to create iPhone-related apps but have been dissuaded from doing so by the threat of litigation. We'll never know what those innovations might be, and how much value is being destroyed by keeping them off the market.

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  • MiKandi

    Thanks for the shout out, Adam!

    While we don't all agree with Apple's decision, MiKandi applauds Apple's efforts be more clear with developers regarding mature content.

    Since Apple's announcement, we've gotten a ton more new developers registered on our portal, and many more expressing their interest to port their newly banned iPhone apps to Android. So we're excited to see what they publish on MiKandi.

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