Who Should Decide What is Sold in iTunes?

6 years ago

All along, Apple has taken the position that their app store must be tightly governed, and all apps must go through some sort of content vetting process before they're made available on iTunes. This is in contrast to the Android Market, which is much more of a jungle of apps of all kinds.

So when the controversy over the Manhattan Declaration app flared up, I did not (and do not) see it as a free speech issue of any kind. It's an Apple PR issue.

Quickly, the background, via Kristen Hawley:

The app, whose founders tout it as a "call of Christian conscience," asks users to sign a nearly 5,000-word declaration written by Christian clergy and scholars. It "speaks in defense of the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty," and "issues a clarion call to Christians to adhere firmly to their convictions in these three areas." It then allows users to add their digital signatures to the declaration.

App users can also choose to answer four "opinion" questions on topics like abortion and same-sex relationships, but upon choosing the undesired "opinion" option, are told they answered incorrectly.

This naturally sparked outrage. Not only was the app criticized as promoting hate, the people behind it are viewed by some with suspicion. On Lez Get Real, Paula Brooks reports some of the history behind Chuck Colson, producer of the app, reminding us that he was involved in the Nixon White House and Watergate.

In addition to his liaison and political duties, Colson’s responsibilities also included, performing “special assignments” for the President Nixon, such as ... setting up “intelligence gathering” operations that included stealing private medical records, a proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution, and then stealing politically damaging documents while firefighters put the fire out and his crowning achievement, the Watergate break in itself.

(I thought that name sounded familiar.)

Then, quietly, Apple pulled Manhattan Declaration from the store.

This sparked counter-protests from the organizers behind the Manhattan Declaration. On Christainpost.com, Lillian Kwon writes:

[T]hose behind the Manhattan Declaration rejected the call that the document is homophobic or anti-anything.

"We emphasize with great sincerity that 'disagreement' is not 'gay-bashing.' Anyone who takes the time to read the Manhattan Declaration can see that the language used to defend traditional marriage, the sanctity of human life, and religious liberty is civil, non-inflammatory, and respectful.

"The Manhattan Declaration clearly calls its signers to reject 'disdainful condemnation' of those who disagree and declares that all people are worthy of respect, because all are loved by God."

One might argue that being told one's views on gay marriage are "incorrect" does not seem to communicate respect, but whatever.

So Apple continues its long tradition of tightly controlling which apps can be in its store (and thus made available to iPhone, iPod and iPad users) based on content, not just technical stability.

This doesn't mean that Apple has somehow managed to create some sort of moral purity or political correctness. On the political extremism side, the store still does have apps like the iMussolini app, a compendium of the Fascist dictator's thoughts and deeds. On the juvenile and tasteless side, there are apps like the Drunk Sniper app, a game that challenges the player to, um, pee into a toilet bowl.

Just lovely.

And yet Apple has banned an Android magazine app, even though other Android magazine apps were approved. Consistency seems to be either extremely difficult or not a priority for Apple. Note this as a characteristic of their scrambling along the slippery slope of trying to curate content to an extremely diverse customer base.

If we were talking about a public service or something in the public commons, this would be a big deal — a matter of public interest and public policy. If, for example, Comcast decided to block access to the Manhattan Declaration's website, that would be a blatant violation of net neutrality. The Internet has become the public square, and I don't believe corporations providing access or backbone to the Internet should be able to censor or block access to even the most hateful site. That's what the First Amendment is about in the US.

But just as Amazon did not have to keep Wikileaks on its servers, Apple does not have to host and sell any apps it chooses not to. I'm free not to use any apps in iTunes I don't like. And if Manhattan Declaration ever gets reinstated in the store, I'm free not to use it, either. However I feel about any of these apps, it really is Apple's decision, in my view. The iTunes store is but one business in a marketplace that does have competition. (I currently have a Droid, having found the iPhone not much of a phone to be useful for actual phonecalls.) And if Apple over-reaches in its community management, it runs the risk of losing appeal, and people will go elsewhere for their phone and tablet devices. It's their house. It's their product/service. It's their revenue model. And it's their loss if they screw it up.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey asks, "Who decides who's a hater?" My answer: When it comes to the iTunes Store, Apple does.

Laura Scott has been writing for BlogHer since 2006. She also blogs at PINGV Creative and rare pattern. Follow her @lauras on Twitter.

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