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.

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