Censorship Stays as iPhone App Development Rules "Relax"

In a surprising announcement—after receiving a mountain of criticism, —Apple has announced that they "are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create apps" and "publishing app review guidelines." That's good. The bad: Arbitrary censorship stays.

What were the restrictions?

Apple wasn't happy when Adobe released tools that allowed developers to create native applications for the iPhone and iPad using using Flash. They fought back, changing the iOS Developer Program license, forbidding developers to use such compilers and development tools. The license said that, if they wanted to publish software for the iOS platform, developers must use Apple's Objective-C-based tools. Period.

Understandably, developers protested. Not only Adobe and those who used Flash, but those who used other cross-platform development tools and didn't want to be limited by Apple's own. Game developers were up in arms, especially those who used environments like Unity, a 3D engine designed to streamline the creation of games across multiple platforms. In fact, countless Unity games were already in the store when Apple decided to put the restriction in place.

Steve Jobs and his acolytes personally slammed those developers and their use of third party tools. Steve Jobs said specifically that "intermediate layers between the platform and the developer ultimately produces sub-standard apps and hinders the progress of the platform," which obviously is not true.

Developers refuted that the policy didn't make any sense at all. They were right.

What has changed?

Now, Apple is backtracking, and it's not surprising—espeicially after that Epic Citadel demonstration created with Unreal Engine. This cross-platform 3D game engine, before this change, would be technically prohibited by the iOS developer license.

In a press release today, Apple announced their new decision:

We are continually trying to make the App Store even better. We have listened to our developers and taken much of their feedback to heart. Based on their input, today we are making some important changes to our iOS Developer Program license in sections 3.3.1, 3.3.2 and 3.3.9 to relax some restrictions we put in place earlier this year.

In particular, we are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code. This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need.

This is a good change, and it's the right thing to do. There's a need for developers to leverage their development efforts and be able to release games and other applications for multiple platforms. The move is only going to benefit the iOS platform.

The infamous review guidelines and censorship

Another surprising news is the publication of the obscure—and, perhaps, non-existent until a few days ago—App Store Review Guidelines. In the past, nobody knew clearly why one application was rejected and a similar one admitted. It seemed completely random.

Now developers can know these guidelines ahead of time and pre-flight their apps against them:

In addition, for the first time we are publishing the App Store Review Guidelines to help developers understand how we review submitted apps. We hope it will make us more transparent and help our developers create even more successful apps for the App Store.

This is good news too. But it may not help much. The problem with the review process may not be the publication of guidelines, but the interpretation of those guidelines.

Take the obscene content rule. We knew it existed, but its enforcement varied from application to application. In fact, in that case the approved application was a worse offender to the rule than the rejected one, but nobody knows why one app passed and the other failed.

This is especially true in the case of apps that feature naked or semi-naked people, and even more obvious in apps that contained naked men or gay sex references. Some of the apps with that kind of content were slashed—although later restored, after the public outcry—while others were kept in the store with no problem whatsoever.

Here's what the newly published guidelines say on that subject:

18. Pornography
18.1 Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster's Dictionary as "explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings", will be rejected
18.2 Apps that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic (ex "Chat Roulette" apps) will be rejected

These are basically the same censorship policies Apple had already in place, so I suspect we will keep seeing the same irregular enforcement, as they are still widely open to the interpretation of the App Store "judges". In fact, they say it so themselves in the introduction:

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, "I'll know it when I see it". And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

The problem here is that United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart would apply his judgement consistently. But Apple doesn't, often approving hot girls in bikini apps but denying hot hunks in trunks (which actually may have a rather simple explanation.

Another problem in the application guidelines intro is this:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

The problem is that people publish books, articles, newspapers, magazines, and comics in app form. And that is when censorship attacks literature, or fashion magazines, ,and newspapers.

Opening the store

Do the new rules signal a more open App Store? Clearly, game developers will be able to continue business as usual without any fears about being blacklisted. Apple did this because they know they needed engines like Unity, Unreal or the incoming id Tech 5 engine if they want to be a full game platform.

The jury is still out on the Flash-compiled applications. In theory, the new rules will allow these as well—unless they try to download code online, which is a good security policy. It's only fair that Apple allow them. The public can make a choice themselves.

As for censorship, the "law" is still the same and it is still open to interpretation, so we will keep seeing the same mistakes.

My hope is that this is the beginning of a less restrictive App Store regime in all fronts, but more things need to change before it's truly open.

Apple App Guidelines

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