iCensor

Controversy swirled around Apple last week, as it first approved and then removed a new app – the Manhattan Declaration. The Manhattan Declaration, the text of which is included in the app, “speaks in defense of the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty,” according to its creators. The app “issues a clarion call to Christians to adhere firmly to their convictions in these three areas”.   The new app, approved for sale at iTunes, was immediately denounced as anti- gay, and thousands signed petitions to demand that Apple remove the app.  Apple took it down.

That’s good right?  No iHate on the iPhone?

Here’s the problem.  Apple seems only to willing to censor.  It has a notoriously strict policy for approving new apps.   And it really doesn’t like sex.

Apple specifies in its Software Development Kit (SDK) that “Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

Steve Jobs defends the policy. “We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.”

In February, Apple began removing apps with “overtly sexual content”.

Apps with gay content have had a bumpy road with Apple. In April, Grindr, the popular app to find other gay men in the area, tightened its terms of service, and outlined a list of no-no’s for profile pictures.  And it is a long list of no-no’s. No underwear showing, no sexually explicit or overly suggestive photos, no nudity covered by a towel or hat.  The list goes on and on.  And its not only pictures: no descriptions of penis size or sexual acts in the text either.  Thanks to Apple, the hunt for homo hook ups has been as sexually sanitized as humanly possible.

Recent reports suggest that it may be getting worse.

The owner of Jack’d reported that his app was removed for sale in October. When he contacted the Apple Apps Review team, he was told his App had to provide a reporting function for sexually explicit material.  As he tried to edit his app’s management page on the Apple website, he received the following warning message: “The following is not recommended for use in this field: gay. Your app may be rejected if you use this term.”

Gay not recommended?

There is nothing new to the censorship.  In fact, Apple has made a few stunning gaffes. Like banning a graphic novel version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest because of two men kissing. Oops.  That got overturned quickly.

Then there was Apple’s request that an app developer remove some of the panels in the graphic novel version of Ulysses, entitled Ulysses Seen, because they were too sexually explicit. Too sexually explicit?

James Joyce’s Ulysses?  One of the great books of the twentieth century?  The book prosecuted for obscenity in the 1920s and 1930s?  The book that a US decided in 1932 was not ultimately obscene because it did not promote lust?   Admittedly, this was a graphic version representation.  This time, there were pictures.  The offending image was a cartoon representation of a Goddess with her breasts exposed. Too sexually explicit?

Seriously?

In an email, Apple admitted “We made a mistake” and encouraged both developers to resubmit their apps.  Yeah. Oops.

Its not always about sex either.  Here are some other apps that Apple has seen fit to censor.  The Huffington Post blog has posted “15 Most Outrageous Rejected Apps”  My personal favorite is the ‘bounce a famous person off the trampoline in the Oval Office’ app. (Admittedly, I have a hard time defending the baby shaker app.)

But, sex is definitely a big one on the no-fly list for Apple – and one that Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple are proud of.

The decision to remove the Manhattan Declaration app needs to be seen against this backdrop, of a company only too willing to sanitize its digital world.  And against the backdrop of a public sphere that is increasingly digitalized.  We communicate our ideas on Facebook and Twitter, downloads our iTunes apps, search for everything we need on Google, text on our Blackberries, iPhones or other smart phones.   Political debates and movements are forged and mobilized using these technologies and social networks.  They are, in many respects, the new public sphere.

(Habermas – the great theorist of the public sphere – disagrees. When asked about the internet, he said “But the web itself does not produce any public spheres. Its structure is not suited to focusing the attention of a dispersed public of citizens who form opinions simultaneously on the same topics and contributions which have been scrutinised and filtered by experts.” Maybe we can leave that debate for another day…)

But, of course, the thing about so much of the digital public sphere is that it isn’t public – these social networks and search engines and technologies that drive them are all privately owned.  Google and Apple do not legally owe us freedom of expression.  Some are more committed than others to open access and open source and other good things, but it’s up to the players themselves to decide where they lie on the libertarian/paternalism spectrum of the web.

And back to Apple.  A pretty big player.  Some would say not a very fair player.  But, that’s what you get to do when you are one of the biggest kid in the playground.  They tightly control everything about their technologies, hard and soft.   They control it, and if we don’t like it, well, as Steve Jobs says, “Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone.”

Some of us buy Androids.  But, its pretty hard to escape the reach of the iWorld in which we live.

I love my iPhone. I buy all my music on iTunes. I am writing this on a Macbook.  I hate that I can’t replace the battery of my iPod, but I just buy another one.  Like everyone else, I am iBranded.

And so – an iPublic sphere, where iCensorship is not just rampant, but seems to have simply become a way of doing business.

It makes me think twice about the Manhattan Declaration.

 

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