Apple’s iPad tablet computer was greeted with enthusiasm by many in the publishing business. The industry is currently smarting from declining circulations, discounted online ad revenues, and a nagging uncertainty about whether magazines and newspapers will survive and thrive in the internet age. To many, the iPad looks like a lifeline.
Among the iPad’s champions are the New York Times and Rupert Murdoch, who said of the iPad, "If you have less newspapers and more of these … it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry."
The editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, summed up the excitement at News Ltd in an interview with ABC’s Media Watch: "The product is very satisfying in this form, you know you’re getting display with pictures, you’re getting layout, you’re getting headlines that aren’t designed for search engine optimisation but have puns and traditional journalistic values in them … I think these are pretty attractive and much more traditionally journalistic."
There’s no question that the iPad opens up new avenues for content delivery and reader experience. With its small size, internet connectivity, easy-to-use software, and general capabilities, the iPad promises to provide a rich and interesting reading experience on a device that has more widespread appeal than a dedicated, monochrome e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle.
Publishers are placing big bets on the iPad as the new distribution device that will revitalise newspapers and magazines and shepherd them into the post-print future. But in making such heavy commitments to a single technology, publishers are effectively putting themselves at the mercy of Apple’s content policies. And as it turns out, these policies are much more restrictive than the classification regimes which apply to print media.
Apple’s portable devices like the iPhone and the iPad are unlike laptop or desktop computers in that new applications can only be obtained through Apple’s centralised App Store, a global marketplace for mobile applications and content. For an application to be available in the App Store, it must first be reviewed by Apple. The set of criteria on which the applications are appraised are not quite clear. According to Apple:
"Applications may be rejected if they contain content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory."
While many applications get rejected for solid technical reasons, there are some recent controversial examples of applications that have fallen foul of these content rules.
The restrictions on "objectionable" content, for example, have led to several dictionary applications being rejected on the grounds that they contain obscene entries. And an electronic book reader was rejected because, among thousands of titles, it gave users access to the Kama Sutra.
The introduction of an adults-only category for applications eased some of these restrictions in that dictionaries were no longer censored — but any content more adult than a picture of a bikini-clad model is still unlikely to be approved.
Apple make no bones about keeping their App Store a PG zone. Steve Jobs recently wrote in an email that Apple has a "moral responsibility" to keep porn off the iPhone, following a large-scale purge of risque applications. "That’s a place we don’t want to go, so we’re not going to go there," he told journalists at a recent event.
It’s not just because of "objectionable" content that apps may be rejected. Being too similar to Apple’s own included applications was another criterion used in the review process. Google’s Latitude application was rejected on the grounds that it was too similar to the standard iPhone Maps app, and Google Voice was rejected for uncertain, but probably competitive, reasons. These decisions are hardly transparent — and to make matters worse, Apple decided to extend its non-disclosure agreement with developers to cover any correspondence about rejected apps.
Apple justifies this control by claiming that close oversight and review are necessary to keep the devices both stable and free of objectionable content — and thus to meet user expectations about Apple products. In this, Apple has so far been successful, but questions remain about how this hands-on model will affect the broad distribution of media content.
The Columbia Journalism Review recently covered the rejection of an app by Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore which was disallowed because of concerns it might be defamatory in its ridicule of public figures. While Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs has since labelled the decision a "mistake", Fiore’s high profile and the media kerfuffle that ensued may have accelerated the reversal.
Fiore echoed a concern many app developers have faced when he told the New York Times, "it’s not like I had a phone number for someone at Apple". The lack of transparency in the app review process means that a developer with less clout would have no choice but to remove the offending material and hope that the app passed muster the second time around.
This was not the first time that a high profile content provider has been bleeped by the censors at Apple. An application called "Newspapers" was rejected because it contained content from British tabloid The Sun — including the Page 3 girl.
Several German publishers have also fallen afoul of Apple’s censors. The iPhone application for Stern, a popular German weekly, was deleted without warning from the App Store because of photo galleries featuring nudity, and Bild, Europe’s best-selling newspaper, had to modify its app to remove certain content that appeared in the print edition.
Other European publications are more reluctant to bend to Apple’s definition of objectionable content. Mathias Müller von Blumencron, editor of the influential German magazine Der Spiegel, put it bluntly: "we can’t adapt European magazines to the standards of Utah." This situation has reportedly so alarmed the Association of German Magazine Publishers that it protested to Apple. The Association’s CEO, Wolfgang Fürstner told Der Spiegel that "we as publishers can’t sell our souls just to get a few lousy pennies from Apple."
It needs to be noted that these cases are the exceptions. For most developers the experience with Apple’s distribution platform has been a positive one. The App Store provides both the means to reach a global audience and the prospect of commercialising that reach with a minimum of extra work.
Indeed, to many, Apple’s restrictions are expressed sufficiently clearly and are certainly tolerable. Adelaide developer Russell Ivanovic told newmatilda.com, "The App Store is an unprecedented way for developers to distribute applications worldwide. There has never been anything like it in the history of mobile development." Marc Edwards, of successful Australian developer Bjango, was also positive: "The App Store has been good to us, but we’re very aware that our business depends on what Apple deems appropriate."
This is the crux of the issue. As a corporation, Apple is accountable only to its board and shareholders. Otherwise the company is free to censor content as it chooses. Corporate censorship is not new. The debate about how Wal-Mart used its retail clout to censor American CDs is over 10 years old.
If the iPad fulfils its promise and achieves a market share in electronic publishing comparable to its success in the smartphone marketplace, Apple’s content reviewers will essentially be usurping the role of government censors. Unlike democratic governments, Apple is under no legal obligation to make its decisions transparent — or even to allow censored developers to share the text of the letter rejecting their content.
In the United States, the Bill of Rights guarantees enormous freedom to publishers. By shifting a substantial portion of their output to a proprietary system, the publishers are in effect signing away this right. So while the US constitution allows the publishers of Hustler the right to print their magazine; Apple’s current terms of service mean that it’s unlikely that magazines like Hustler will take part in the iPad publishing revolution.
If the iPad can truly save the magazine and newspaper industry from going under, submitting to Apple’s control might be the lesser of two evils. But if the content standards are more severe than those that apply offline — not to mention less transparent and accountable — the longer-term outlook for readers and publishers may not be so rosy.
Readers might never know what books and magazines are missing, or how their articles have been expurgated. Publishers will err on the side of caution and they may self-censor to avoid the hassle of dealing with a rejection or with the removal of their fast-selling applications. The pointy end of storytelling and journalism may well be blunted. This should concern any adult who values their freedom to choose what they want to read.
Bjango’s Edwards summed it up thus: "I definitely see the benefit for Apple and for most users. I also see how Apple may wish to control what’s shown in their store. I don’t have an issue with that. However, if the conclusion is that all software for all platforms must pass though a gatekeeper, then that’s a future I don’t want."
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