Apple will censor the bejeezus out of everything in the app store. Sometimes, this is seen as okay (racism, hate speech, etc), and sometimes it really isn’t (classic literature, modern literature, political discontent), but what it boils down to is that this is Apple’s ecosystem, and as much as you may or may not like it, they have complete control over the situation.
Then why is it that content that would never pass muster in the App Store is freely available for download in other parts of iTunes? Warning, racy language ahead…
Steve Jobs is notoriously anti-smut, once promising that the iOS ecosystem provides users “freedom from porn“, and early last year pushed through a massive cull of titillating apps from the App Store, nixing anything with more than a touch of innuendo. Which is fine, his house, his rules. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but whatevs, right?
Then would someone please explain to me why they allow things that would never get through the app censors onto your iPhone through other means? I’m not just talking about web apps — Jobs has always been open to the fact that if you want certain material that you can’t get approved through the app store, go HTML5 like Playboy did (and many other adult providers have, too.)
No, what I’m talking about is the stuff that you can get through iTunes. Let me break it down like this:
App Store: PG-13
iTunes Movies/Music/Podcasts: R
Easy to understand, right? Want proof? Look at this. While you won’t get any “NC-17″ titles if you want to rent a movie or TV show, here’s some of what you will get. Spartacus: Blood and Sand. This Starz high budget swords and sandals epic was filled with full frontal nudity (both male and female) and copious amounts of sex scenes (of all orientations). The violence is copious, arguably gratuitous, and very lifelike.
South Park. Not exactly bannable material most would argue, but definitely filled with swearing, nudity, and toilet humor, right? The fact that it’s in here becomes important later on…just bear with me.
Human Centipede. Do I really need to offer an example of a more horrible and disturbing movie? Do you really need a reason why a movie about stitching three people ass-to-mouth to form a living centipede wouldn’t make it into the app store? Body horror is one thing, but this is something else. It’s a movie which drove people from the theatre in droves, and by all accounts the sequel’s even worse. The only thing that would have been less tasteful would have been if they had allowed on A Serbian Film or something similar.
In the world of music and podcasts, sexually explicit material is seen as fine. There are a number of pornstars who appear regularly on podcasts, and often have witty, hilarious and insightful things to say. They also speak candidly about the business, using language that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t pass muster in the app store. The inclusion of the [Explicit ] tag exists for a reason, but I don’t think Bailey Jay will be getting an app any time soon.
The iBookstore is possibly the most egregious example of hypocrisy I’ve ever seen. With movies, music and podcasts, one could even argue that the sex and violence are incidental to the real point of the medium, and thus shouldn’t be banned. Yet you can easily download erotica through the iBookstore, without even a pause for thought. Sex educator Violet Blue’s Best Women’s Erotica is there. Anne Rice’s infamous pseudonymed kink trilogy The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty is there (in audiobook, too.) You can even pick up a volume of Penthouse erotica for your reading. These are blatantly there solely for the noble purpose of arousal, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.
You want to know what makes this even worse? It’s not just that Apple won’t allow adult apps in the app store, but that they won’t allow content that you can get through the rest of iTunes in via apps. In 2009, Apple rejected a South Park app, despite allowing you to watch the show on your iPhone. Apple originally banned Trent Reznor’s NIN app because it contained content from the album Downward Spiral, content which you could buy through iTunes music store (though they later backtracked on this one). Apple disallowed an app to give you access to Project Gutenberg because it contained the Kama Sutra, a book you can download for free through the iBookstore.
It’s rank hypocrisy, and there’s no other way to look at it. Apple obviously thinks this content is not appropriate for the app store, but is fine in its other ecosystems. There was a brief, brief hint early 2010 that Apple might be looking at adding an [Explicit] section to the app store, though it rapidly vanished. If they had just instituted this, the same parental controls that govern the rest of the iTunes stores would have worked on the app store.
So, what’s the difference between the app store and all these others? Why can Apple get away with it in one place and not another? I’m not 100% sure, but I think I know why, and it only takes one word. Publishers. Up until about a year ago — even arguably more recently — if you wanted a book published you needed a publisher. If you wanted your record on iTunes, you needed a label. Sure, there were people who went under the radar, but by in large, the vast majority of content comes via big corporations who control the rights to people’s works. So when Apple was actively courting them for their content, I’m betting the publishers wanted all or nothing. Either take it or leave it, blood, guts, and genitalia included.
Apple’s had an uphill battle getting these companies on board. First they fought to get music labels into iTunes, then the TV and movie companies for rentals, and it was only at WWDC this year that they announced that all the major book publishers in the USA were on board for the iBookstore. In these situations, Apple didn’t really seem to be in a position to dictate what they would and wouldn’t allow from each source.
Contrast that to the app store. There are a handful of major publishers: ngmoco, gameloft, EA, and a couple of others. Sure, their apps might get pushed through first, and they might have first access to new features, but I bet if they threatened to take their business elsewhere if Apple didn’t allow an app with naked people, Apple would just say goodbye. There’s a power differential in the app store that there isn’t with the other stores, and it’s one that leaves the developers in a position where they have very little say about what they can and can’t publish.
As much as major publishers and labels can be derided and insulted for screwing over artists (see: Amanda Palmer), they have the power to push in more content where small individual app developers do not. And it’s because of this that Apple is able to institute it puritanical and draconian war on “adult content” in the app stores, but still stocks them in other areas of iTunes.