The App Store censorship horse may have been beaten to death, but mainstream German media—whose iPhone applications have been censored by Apple because of its content—are not surrendering. I'm glad. In fact, I hope they win this war.
The censorship problem is not only about the 5,000 titillating apps that fell down in flames after Apple's latest puritanic raid. Except for apps from well known slippery-when-wet publishing houses like Playboy, that raid closed the smutty graphic category entirely. The censorship problem goes a lot deeper than that, and it has affected mainstream publications already.
The polemic in Germany started when Apple took down Stern's iPhone app without notice. Stern—a very large weekly news magazine—published a gallery of erotic photos as part of its editorial content. It wasn't gratuitous: It was just part of the material published in the magazine itself, integrated in their usual sections.
The entire app was taken down, according to the Spiegel, and publisher Gruner + Jahr had to eliminate that content in order for the application to go up to the store again. They learnt their lesson, since they haven't published any other material that may offend Apple's "moral police"—as the German press calls it.
Then came Bild, a large daily newspaper printed by publishing powerhouse Axel Springer AG. Bild also distributes its content through a dedicated iPhone application. This app gives access to its sections from a central springboard. Last December, they released a new mini-app called Bild-Girl, which shows a woman moaning and getting rid of her clothes every time you shake the iPhone with your free hand.
Apple didn't take that well and asked Bild to put a bikini on the girl. Bild complied. But now Apple also wants Bild to censor the naked girl that comes in the PDF version of the printed newspaper, which is accessible from the Bild application too. Apple is trying to force them into censoring their publication, even while the women are pre-emptively censored: Their nipples are pixelated and unrecognizable in the iPhone-distributed PDF document.
That's when the Bild editors went ballistic.
I don't blame them, because I'm going fucking ballistic at this stage of the proceedings too. How Apple can force Bild to change their editorial content? Or putting it another way: If Gizmodo decides to release an iPhone application tomorrow, would Apple take it down whenever we publish a NSFW post that shows nipples?
Probably they would, if they receive enough complaints. (We receive some from time to time, so it's not out of the question). What about magazines, books, or comic books—like Watchmen and other adult graphic novels—that contain explicit sexual descriptions or graphics? Would those be censored too in the future, if enough people think it's politically incorrect?
What about other content? Like Bild Digital's CEO Donata Hopfen says: "Today they censor nipples, tomorrow editorial content." The Association of German Magazine Publishers agree, and they have asked the International Federation of the Periodical Press to make a complaint to Apple. I agree too: This is just not about the nipples. If Apple had established a firm set of rules about tits and pink beforehand, there wouldn't be any problem. But this censorship is completely arbitrary and unexpected.
How? Imagine Gawker develops an iPod/iPad application, one that gives access to Gizmodo.com, Gawker.com and all its publications—except Fleshbot, for obvious reasons. Now imagine that we get the scoop of the Next Big Thing from Steve Jobs, and decide to publish it in the app. Would Apple send another letter threatening us to take down the app, perhaps? Would Apple have banned an hypothetical Gawker app when Gizmodo uncovered Steve Jobs' health problems?
I don't think that's a crazy thought. In fact, knowing how things work, I think it's entirely possible.
And it doesn't have to be about Apple or tits. There are plenty of applications that have been deemed blasphemous or offensive by Apple, and banned from publication. Would publications showing a caricature of Prophet Mohamed be taken down as well? That would get Phil Schiller plenty of complaint letters.
I don't really know what Apple may do in these cases. And that's the problem. The fact is that they forced Stern and Bild to do change their editorial content decisions, and anyone or anything could be next. Apple is a corporation and they can do whatever they want, after all. In fact, that's the argument of the people who defend these decisions: It's Apple's prerogative to do whatever the hell they want with their store.
But knowing that the Apple iPhone-iPod-iPad triumvirate is the largest mobile application platform in the world—practically owning the category—couldn't that be considered an abuse of quasi-monopoly power? I have no idea. I will leave that question to the lawyers of the Association of German Magazine Publishers. And the lawyers of the International Federation of the Periodical Press.
Click to viewAnd if indeed things get any worse, I hope the lawyers at the European Union, and hopefully some commission at the United States' Senate will give us the answer. [VDZ and Bild (Google Translated) via Spiegel]