Apple, Content Platforms & Editorial Discretion

by on February 23, 2010 · 6 comments

I posted a rant here over the weekend about those who were engaging in what I believed was excessive whining about Apple’s moves to restrict pornographic content in the Apple Apps Store. (see: “Apple’s App Store, Porn & ‘Censorship‘”) It received a surprising number of comments and featured a back and forth between me and our old TLF blogging colleague Tim Lee. Tim has continued the discussion over on his personal blog and argued that:

[T]he key thing to focus on isn’t the abstract question of whether porn on iPhones is good or bad. The key thing to recognize is how fundamentally broken the process itself is. “Overtly sexual content” is a concept that seems clear in the abstract but gets leaky once you have to actually classify tens of thousands of applications. Apple is going to make mistakes, and when they do hapless developers are going to find their apps blocked, often with little explanation or recourse. Also, Apple is going to change its mind periodically, and when they do the affected developers are going to find their hard-earned apps rendered worthless overnight. This is no way to run a technology platform. It’s unfair to developers and it doesn’t scale. And this is precisely why it would be better for everyone if Apple could come up with an application distribution scheme that didn’t require so much central planning.

I followed up with a comment over there, but just thought I would repost it here, in which I argue that Tim is underestimating how difficult this task of defining acceptable content is and that he is also downplaying Apple’s legitimate editorial discretion to establish standards for the community platform they provide. I’m also uncomfortable with Tim’s constant use of “central planning” rhetoric to describe almost any private, proprietary model of institutional governance or platform development he doesn’t seem to agree with, but I have not elaborated on that point here. Anyway, here’s how I responded over on his blog:

___

So, when you say “Apple could come up with an application distribution scheme that didn’t require so much central planning,” what exactly does that mean? Apple already has Terms of Service, but there are ALWAYS going to be things in ANY terms of service that are fuzzy. “Security,” “stability,” “safety,” etc.. these are not exercises in exact science. So what would you have Apple do in this case?

How about this: “Penetration-based sexual images, videos, and applications shall not be allowed in the Apple Apps Store.” That seems like a pretty easy rule and fairly unambiguous. But everything after hard-core porn gets more and more difficult to define. What about an app that is just completely naked women pole-dancing? It’s not hard-core porn, but I bet Apple would want to keep it off their platform. Writing a rule that covers that but not a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition app might be challenging.

The point here is that (a) crafting terms of service for acceptable content/conduct on media/communications platforms is always difficult, but (b) Apple and others should have the editorial discretion to do so. If customers don’t like it, they can (and do) complain vociferously. And sometimes companies change their editorial approach in response to such complaints. Other times, however, they will be under just as much pressure from other forces to to the exact opposite.

So, when you say: “The key thing to recognize is how fundamentally broken the process itself is,” you seem to fail to appreciate how this process is pretty damn challenging for any platform developer. The only way this becomes “easy” is if the platform owner just takes any and all content people throw at them. Libertarian-minded people like the two of us probably wouldn’t mind that. But the community of interests that Apple serves is broad and diverse. They are in the same boat as a traditional newspaper editor or broadcaster who was trying to juggle a lot of interests at once and inevitably making some folks unhappy in the process. But that doesn’t mean the process is “broken”; it just means it is difficult.

Apple should be more transparent about what they do and do not allow in the Apps Store and strive for brighter line rules. But even as they do, some folks will still complain. And, luckily, there’s always another place to go for service.

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

    Uh, isn't the whole point of our First Amendment jurisprudence that obscenity is very, very difficult to define? “I know it when I see it” isn't exactly the kind of standard we want to force private operators to live by in the name of freedom.

    Anyway, the real conflict here about what philosopher Robert Nozick referred to as a “Utopia of Utopias,” a concept Adam explained last year. The question is simple: Under what circumstances, if any, are we going to allow the construction of communities that deviate from libertarian principles? Must all communities be libertarian utopias with no impositions on the choices available to adults? Or may some community operators choose to offering competing (utopias) based on other principles?

    As I noted in my comments to Adam's original piece here on the TLF, we could have a fair debate over what kind of notice Apple needs to give “settlers” in its community (those who buy an iPhone and sign a 1- or 2-year contract for Apple service), either upon their initial sign up or upon material changes in the terms of use for its communities. That, in many ways, is what the recent debates over Facebook and Buzz boil down to: how much notice is enough?

    But Tim and others seem to think either that the consent of settlers already in the community (iPhone users) must unanimous (with Apple having to “buy out” dissenters by freeing them of their contracts, say, and letting them walk away with a heavily subsidized piece of hardware) or simply that we shouldn't allow un-libertarian communities in the first place.

    Again, in a world where users do have meaningful choices—say, Apple, Windows Mobile, Android, Blackberry, Palm & Symbian—I really don't see why we should be insisting that all communities must adhere to our values and preferences about what we think is the right “Utopianism.”

    The different approaches to issues like this were brilliantly explained by the late, great philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1975 masterpiece Anarchy, State, and Utopia

    We may distinguish three utopian positions: imperialistic utopianism, which countenances the forcing of everyone into one pattern of community; missionary utopianism, which hopes to persuade or convince everyone to live in one particular kind of community, but will not force them to do so; and existential utopianism, which hopes that a particular pattern of community will exist (will be viable), though not neecssarily universally, so that those who wish to do so may live in accordance with it.

    Tim seems to be operating somewhere along the spectrum between Imperialistic and missionary utopianisms, whereas I think Adam and I are somewhere between existential and missionary utopianisms.

  • Ryan Radia

    As a consumer, I’m in 100% agreement with Tim's preference regarding the iPhone app store.
    But there’s a big problem — plenty of folks have been making the same kind of argument for years, and guess what? Consumers and even developers still flock to the iPhone! In spite of Apple’s absurd, overly restrictive, and often downright arbitrary app store policies, the iPhone continues to gain market share (even as Android has come into its own) and, excepting some questionable anecdotes, mobile app developers still spend more time developing for the iPhone than for any other mobile platform.

    Of course, in the long run, the more open nature of WiMo/Android will give those platforms an important leg up over the iPhone. But I imagine a sufficiently large number of consumers like Apple’s modus operandi enough that the iPhone will remain a major player in the wireless device world for years to come. And that’s fine — what’s wrong with a company like Apple successfully catering to consumers who, in the view of Tim and I, have dumb preferences? By now, I think it’s safe to say Apple’s behavior isn't a fluke, but a wise and pro-competitive business practice. The market’s working, and that’s all one can ask for!

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

    Berin, I haven't said anything about what kind of platforms Apple should be allowed to make. I'm expressing an opinion about the kinds of platform I prefer. Since in practice the number of platforms is pretty limited, I'm going to have to pick a platform that doesn't meet all my desired criteria, and I'm naturally going to find things to criticize about the platform I pick.

    Or to put it differently: a key part of Nozick's “framework for utopias” is the freedom of exit. In this case, that would be the freedom to “exit” the app store and install the applications of my choice. Users who want to spend their lives entirely within one “community” should be free to do so, but I'm asking for the right to leave that community, and take my property with me, if I decide I don't like its rules.

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

    Berin, I haven't said anything about what kind of platforms Apple should be allowed to make. I'm expressing an opinion about the kinds of platform I prefer. Since in practice the number of platforms is pretty limited, I'm going to have to pick a platform that doesn't meet all my desired criteria, and I'm naturally going to find things to criticize about the platform I pick.

    Or to put it differently: a key part of Nozick's “framework for utopias” is the freedom of exit. In this case, that would be the freedom to “exit” the app store and install the applications of my choice. Users who want to spend their lives entirely within one “community” should be free to do so, but I'm asking for the right to leave that community, and take my property with me, if I decide I don't like its rules.

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

    Here's an interesting perspective from John Gruber: http://daringfireball.net/2010/02/tits_and_apps

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

    Here's an interesting perspective from John Gruber: http://daringfireball.net/2010/02/tits_and_apps

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