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Opinion: The Tyranny Of Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines
Opinion: The Tyranny Of Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines
September 15, 2010 | By Kyle Orland

September 15, 2010 | By Kyle Orland
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[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra editor Kyle Orland argues that Apple's newly-revealed App Store Review Guidelines document is full of inconsistent and vague restrictions that limit app developers’ rights to free expression.]

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why Apple doesn’t just go the Android route and allow any app written by some yahoo with a developer account onto its iOS devices. Apple has an interest in guaranteeing that the apps it allows its users to download won’t be destructive, unusable, or misrepresentative of Apple or any other companies or entities.

The majority of Apple’s newly-revealed App Store Review Guidelines, which deal with these kinds of issues, are perfectly understandable.

But like so many other content reviewers before them, Apple has taken this little bit of reasonable restrictive power and extended it to unreasonable levels.

The company’s App Store Review Guidelines have the air of soundness and comprehensiveness about them, but the seven-page document is full of hypocritical, inconsistent and vague restrictions that limit App developers’ rights to free expression.

”If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.”

Let’s start right in the second paragraph of the introduction, where Apple lays out the rationale for restricting app content in the first place:
"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."
While it’s awfully nice of Apple to suggest other avenues where developers might practice their religion-hating, sex-loving free expression, I don’t see why such speech is OK when it’s written or sung, but not OK when it’s made interactive.

Why would an iPhone version of a game like Bye Bye Mosques be subject to review (and likely denial) by Apple -- while a book encouraging readers to blow up mosques would be theoretically allowed on their book store without review? Why can I download a Prince song about Little Nicky "masturbating to a magazine" from iTunes, but not download an interactive story app that lets me do it myself?

While Apple doesn’t explicitly say why it views apps differently than books or songs, one gets the feeling reading the Review Guidelines that it has something to do with their idea of “keeping an eye out for the kids,” as they put it. After all, children never read or listen to music, but Apple notes:
"We have lots of kids downloading lots of apps, and parental controls don't work unless the parents set them up (many don't).”
Even leaving aside the cross-media double-standard for a moment, here we have Apple making the incredible admission that their own parental controls have been made ineffective by an overwhelming lack of parental interest. Not just somewhat ineffective, but so completely ineffective that Apple has felt the need to take on the parental control role for themselves.

If parents really aren’t using the iOS’ parental controls enough, I can think of quite a few things Apple could have done to address this problem. They could have forced users to set up parental controls (or actively opt out of them) when they buy or upgrade an iOS device. They could have mounted one of their extremely popular ad campaigns to educate the masses about the feature. Instead, the company decided to skip the middleman and become surrogate parents for every man, woman and child with an iDevice, no matter their age or maturity level.

”I'll know it when I see it.”

But being a surrogate parent is no easy task. You have to set down logical, straightforward, easily understandable rules or your children might rebel. So Apple has included a host of extremely clear-cut, no-grey-area guidelines for what kind of app content is and is not acceptable in its Review Guidelines. Take, for instance, this excerpt from 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."
Don’t play dumb, app developers... you knew you were crossing the line when you submitted that rejected app, didn’t you? Of course you did. In fact, we’re not even going to tell you where that line might be, because you’ll know immediately when you’ve crossed it anyway. Everyone is born with such inherent line-sensing abilities, right?

Actually, Apple gets a little more precise with Guideline 18.1, using Webster’s dictionary definition of pornography to restrict content that includes:
"Explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings."
Since they’re obviously fond of quoting Supreme Court justices, I’m kind of surprised Apple didn’t instead use the requirements described in 1974’s Miller vs. California, which forced state anti-obscenity statutes to consider "whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find the work offensive.

Actually, I’m not that surprised they didn’t use this standard, because such a restriction would require Apple to trust iPhone users to decide for themselves what kind of content they and their contemporary communities were mature enough to view. After all, why have standards that are local when you can have standards that are Apple’s?

Of course, it’s not enough for your content to be clean. The content generated by all of your users has to be clean as well. See Regulation 18.2, which states:
"Apps that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic (ex. ‘Chat Roulette’ apps) will be rejected."
Given this restriction, Apple might want to take a second look at the FaceTime app they built in to iOS 4.0. Not to be crude, but I hear a lot of people are using it to take pictures of things that are not their faces.

”...Illegal or reckless use of such weapons...”

Just being clean (inside and out) isn’t enough to get your App through the wringer, though. You have to eschew violence, too. It’s for the children, you understand, that rule 15.4 states:
"Apps involving realistic depictions of weapons in such a way as to encourage illegal or reckless use of such weapons will be rejected."
Someone should let Apple know that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars somehow snuck through this safety net. The Rockstar game has been one of the App Store’s top selling titles despite allowing players to use tanks, flamethrowers, and all sorts of semi-automatic weapons in some incredibly illegal and reckless ways.

I suppose it's arguable that the game isn’t a “realistic” depiction of violence, but really, short of an app that lets you shoot people via live webcam and a server specially rigged up to a shotgun, I’m not sure what that adjective is even supposed to mean in this context.

”...The ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary.”

Even if your app is clean and nonviolent, it might not be enough if it’s not respectful, too. Not just respectful to Apple, but respectful to everyone. So says Guideline 14.1, which reads that:
"Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way will be rejected."
While I can understand why Apple wouldn’t want apps that put people’s reputations or bodies on the line, I can’t understand why they’d want to limit content that is merely offensive or mean-spirited. After all, our country was built on offensive, mean-spirited commentary, and on the citizenry’s right to make such commentary as they see fit. Turn on any cable news show or open any newspaper’s Op-Ed page, in fact, and you’ll see our country continues to thrive on giving offense and yelling while in mean spirits.

Luckily, there’s a loophole for patriotic Americans in Regulation 14.2, which states:
"Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary."
Maybe someone at Apple can tell the tens of thousands of app makers out there where they can get their professional professional political satirist/humorist card. Is there a government agency that issues them? What about those of us who are merely amateur satirists, working our way up to achieve one of those few paid positions? Should developers submit a scanned pay stub from an officially approved satirical organization with their App submissions?

”We don't need any more Fart apps.”

But even if your submission is clean, respectful and nonviolent, your app can still be rejected if it’s not original enough. Back we go to the introduction:
"We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don't need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted."
As I write this, a search for “fart” on the iTunes App Store turns up 807 distinct apps, by my count. Let’s take Apple’s statement that "we don’t need any more Fart apps" at face value. That means that, logically, they did need more Fart apps on Sept. 10, when Farts Ultimate Soundboard Version 1.0 was approved for release on the App Store.

Never mind that the copy of the Review Guidelines I’m working from is dated Sept. 9, 2010. The point is that Apple’s “no more Fart apps needed” pledge can be used to determine the precise level of originality necessary to make it on to the App Store. Basically, you have to be one of the first 800 or so app makers to beat an idea to death in order to get that sought-after approval. After that, sorry my friend, but you missed the gold rush.

”If it sounds like we're control freaks...”

Perhaps realizing how all these myriad restrictions made the company sound, Apple takes an almost apologetic tone in wrapping up the introduction to their Review Guidelines:
“If it sounds like we're control freaks, well, maybe it's because we're so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products. ”
That sounds great, on the face of it, but it’s Apple’s definition of a “quality experience” that’s worrying. Instead of focusing exclusively on keeping the App Store free of bugs, viruses and hard-to-use interfaces, the App Review Guidelines, as written, try to enforce an app experience that’s sanitized of all nudity, violence, disrespect and certain overused ideas. That might sound like quality to some, but to me it sounds more like tyranny.


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Comments


Janosch Dalecke
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As I see it, no matter how vague these guidelines are right now, they are way better than staying in the dark like before. Until now iOS developers only had a few "Don't" buried in the license agreement and hear-say on the internet about rejected apps. It's true that Apple can reject any app they like, but so far you had to guess if using third party tools or ad networks was okay if your app would be rejected.



I really hope that Apple continues to work on the guidelines and in a few years it might have grown to some kind of lot-check document with clear rules instead of vague guidelines.

Carlo Delallana
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Not sure how this is any different from guidelines set-up by the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony and to a degree the ESRB when it comes to game ratings. I guess in the case of console games there's a rating for a game that goes beyond an "M" that doesn't specifically bar it from being released to the public but it would be commercial suicide to have a game with an AO rating.

E Zachary Knight
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The difference is that any game controls are based on the Rating itself and not what got it that rating. It is one thing to bar access to AO rated games and a totally different issue to bar all games with any sexual content or violence.



It would be nice to live in a world where businesses and governments trusted us to choose media for ourselves and our kids rather than trying to play parent for us.

Carlo Delallana
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That assumes all humans are rational all of the time...but we're equal parts rational and emotional. :)

E Zachary Knight
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Thank you fro the write up. I had some very similar thoughts when I read the guidelines. I was even mentally going through the document, while remembering some apps that had been rejected in the past. Some apps that had been rejected did not fall under any of these guidelines.



For example:



Nine Inch Nails member Trent Reznor created an app that basically linked you to his video blog. This app was rejected because it accessed content that was deemed inappropriate. The content in question was a short audio clip of one of his songs that was available in the itunes store.



Another example was a person who made an app that allowed people to enter their address and it would pull up their Congressman and Senators along with a bio, contact information and a Caricature of the politician. This app was rejected.



Finally there was an ebook reader style app that connected to Project Gutenberg in order to download public domain books. This app was rejected because one of the books that could be downloaded was a copy of the Kama Sutra.



I am having a hard time figuring out how any of these app rejections really crossed that "line"

Jakub Majewski
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Setting aside the question of whether Apple's guidelines make sense or not, the term "tyranny", in this context, is simply ridiculous (to put it mildly). The App Store is privately-owned. It's not tyranny for the owner to object to selling some things there - it's simply a case of Apple exercising the most basic property rights.



Denying them that right - now, that would be tyranny.

Eric Geer
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Tyranny...ha...this is just Apple being a privately owne company--the rules don't even sound like rules..they sound almost like they are joking. It basically comes down to Apple created the hardware---they created the operating system software---and it all comes down to their say whether an app gets approved or rejected--its a quality control that is very loose in terms and conditions.



If you don't like it..then find somewhere else to cry about it. Everyone is buying into "My way, when and how I want it, all the time" aspect of being a consumer--this is just a line that Apple is creating to show that they still have the final say in anything that is running on their products.

Joe Rheaume
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No one's saying they can't do this, but it's important to criticize them as a way of countering the hype around the App store for the devs who see it as a gold rush.



Apple's arbitrary and inconsistent rules turn software developers into sharecroppers. The developer takes all the risk in making a new App, even risking their work being wasted because Apple rejects it, and Apple gets a large piece of the benefit if an App does well.



They're perfectly within their rights to handle things this way, but devs should be aware what they're getting into.



As an aside, it's pretty obnoxious to respond to an opinion piece with "if you don't like it, don't use it". Advice you're ignoring when it comes to reading the opinion you disagree with.



Reasoned disagreement is a way for people to make things better.

Pedro Mancheno
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Check apple's description of this "line" you speak of.



Clear and concise description, eh?

David Marcum
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What Jakub said. Free expression rights are not being taken away. Apple is not the U.S. They are protecting their brand.



Kyle If I submitted an article to Gamasutra that was a poem criticizing a certain religion, had tasteful pictures of nude men and women holding weapons with links to fart sounds and stated that I wish more games explored the subjects I included in the article, do you think they should be compelled to print it? What if I said that I found your article politically charged and my article was satirical in nature? Gamasutra stop the tyrany! This is an official proposal. I want to write that article!



P.S. Editors of Gamasutra please don't cave into my vitriol and let's let Kyle's stand.

Kris Graft
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David -- please forward me a draft of your religious/nude/gun-toting/fart poem.

David Marcum
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darn.



Gamasutra - 1

David - 0

Kyle Orland
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Your analogy is not apt, David, because you'd still be able to publish your offensive poem on the Internet at large, if not on Gamasutra. On the iPhone, there is no alternative to publishing apps outside of the App Store. If such an unmoderated alternative were available, I would rescind ever single one of my complaints.

David Marcum
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Kyle you are mad because Apple doesn't see things your way. The quality controls they use seem inconsistent to you. You wrote about it. That is fair. I respect that.



Gamasutra owns their site. Apple owns their platform. Apple doesn't own all portable device platforms. Who owns the internet? This is where, I contend, you have made an error. Apples and oranges. There is a legal distinction.

Kyle Orland
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A fair point. I guess I see the iPhone less as a platform someone owns and more as the next generation of portable computer. Much as Apple and Microsoft don't impose restrictions on what can run on their desktop and laptop OSes, I don't believe they should be getting into the business of restricting content on this latest OS just because they can.

Bob Philhower
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Speaking from a parent's perspective, (whose daughter has an iPod touch) determining whether a piece of software is appropriate for my child is very different from determining whether a book or piece of music is appropriate.



I can readily review a piece of music in O( of its length. (plus perhaps some searches on urbandictionary) I can sample a book quite readily from beginning to end. With books, specifically, I rely on my local library's "walled garden" of books which are reviewed before purchase and our personal trust in our youth librarian.



Software is much more difficult. I can't sample the extent (I.E. reach the end of the game, perhaps) without a considerable investment of time. If I did not have trust in Apple's review process, I may very have turned off App downloading alltogether...an alternative Apple wants to discourage.

E Zachary Knight
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As a parent myself, I have learned the value of the internet in reviewing games my children play. I can easily do a google search for videos of games my kid asks about. I can read reviews of games as well.



I have to ask you this, have you set the parental controls on your daughter's iPod Touch? If you haven't, why not? This will greatly decrease the burden on yourself by reducing the number of apps you need to review.

Joe Rheaume
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Speaking as a former child, I think we're way too concerned as a society with the concept that our children might be exposed to "dangerous ideas".

E Zachary Knight
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Very true. I remember that my mom didn't want us watching certain Saturday morning cartoons. We watched them anyways and one of the ones she didn't want me watching ended up being one of my all time favorite childhood cartoons. (Life With Louie)

Sarah Thomson
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I think Apple has every right to impose whatever rules they wish. The issue I have with them is the inconsistency, flipflopping and hypocrisy on which apps are accepted or not. Set the rules and enforce them across the board, indie developer or all-powerful publisher.

Pedro Mancheno
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A perfect example of this inconsistency and hypocrisy you point out was given with GTA: China Town.



I'm thinking about this Sound Grenade app I have on my iPod Touch. It depicts a Grenade, which emits this really high pitch sound when touched. (Perfect for annoying co-workers :P).



Will an app like this be banned because it depicts a weapon, while GTA is allowed?



Can Rockstar pay no mind to these guidelines?

Tadhg Kelly
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Indeed, it's not a perfect world.



On the other hand there is something of an irony that this editorial comes from a site whose main purview is videogames, given that videogames are perhaps the most self-censorious of all the major media. Apple's position is not libertarian by any means, but compared to the difficulties of the submissions process for any major console it is a walk in the park.

Kyle Orland
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A fair point Tadhg, but it neglects the wide open vistas of PC game development, which requires no approval. I guess I see the iPhone as a sort of pocket comptuer more than I see it as a new proprietary games consoles. As such, I use the traditional, hand-off regulation of the PC market as my basis. I can understand if others see it differently.

Stephen Northcott
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When you read the rules in their entirety they seem to focus on the very things that have proved contentious over the App Store's lifetime. Almost as if scribblings of policy for App Store Gnomes on the white-boards in their hive on the Mothership have simply been translated into "hooman speek" for us.



I have had no problem with Apple's guidelines to date. Either when they were hidden, or now that the white-boards have been typed up for us.

Derek Smart
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This was a pretty good read. However, my thougths are that anyone who wants to exercise their right to Free Speech, can very well do it somewhere else.



Much like consoles, the iTunes store is privately owned and Apple has every right to do what they want, how they want and when they want. Don't like it? Well, the remedy is simple: don't go there, don't develop games for Apple



And even if there are inconsistences in their guidelines, I'm certain that it's only a perception and that unless you actually speak to those who wrote them up, nobody would understand the thought process that went into it.

pete dodd
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This was a good read and I was hoping to find someone with a bit of insight I could trust to break down what Apple is trying to do. So on that front, I enjoyed it, but the piece was more entertainment than information. Let me try to explain.





I see these rules through the same lens I look at American politics. We can get all caught up in the details and get passionate about how they mean so much when, at the end of the day, they mean so little. Personally I like Obama and hated Bush. Is my life any better now than it was during Bush? Nope. In fact, my day to day life has not changed in the slightest. It's had zero tangible effect on me. Yet, I still stay engaged in politics and read opinion pieces and get angry about stuff... even though none of it ever really matters.



I feel the apple store is the same way. In theory, the Android store is way cooler. People putting apps up that do anything... porn, stealing game ideas (there's like 9000 mario clones), etc. It's the wild west, its neato. It also doesn't have as cool of apps (for my tastes) that apple does.



Apple may be closed off, assholes, standoffish, inconsistent, etc etc etc. But what matters is that when I open the app store there are hundreds of games that I want. Between my iphone and ipad I have over 400 apps and if I had the funds and the space on my devices, i would have 2000 more. So i see these rules, and I see how apple have handled the store from the start and I think to myself "man, they are jerks!" but when it comes down to me actually going into the store I am extremely happy with how many insanely awesome apps there are.



That said, I do jailbreak just for the 3g unlock and the tether. But that's more my issue with ATT and not apple.









TLDR: Apple are jerks, but man their store is awesome.

Andrew Calhoun
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Having worked for Apple, there were many things I loved and hated about their policies; however, the no adult apps and "offensive" apps thing is a straw man, and there are even apps that warn you of mature content. I mean, when you go on and find apps which include a sex position for everyday of the year as a featured app. Download Doodle God, you get warned that it has content that may be inappropriate for people under 17, as there is a number of references to booze, sex, and drug use. There are several others, so Apple is not rejecting stuff based on content. I think they try to filter things out on quality of the program, if you follow me... If the program doesn't deliver what is advertised, it's likely to get rejected or if they have a glut of the same type of program unless the designer delivers something incredible based on that genre. Apps that encourage illegal behavior also get rejected. And it's loosened up considerably since the App Store launched, especially since they pulled back certain developer restrictions, including Flash based apps, something people have mercilessly dinged Apple about, and even i agree its a pain.



All that being said, i sympathize with people's opinion that the app store is too restrictive. Though, we live in a fairly liberal global free market, so that gives the options that come with choice. No one forces you to buy or develop for Apple exclusively. It really comes down to personal preference, and if your app is rejected by Apple, there is likely other markets for it or if you are hellbent on selling it on the App Store, make the highest quality app of its type out there. Remember, private companies do not have to grant the same rights promised by your nations respective constitution. Just try to stand up in your cube and shout obscenities about your boss and see how log you are still employed at that private company and how far freedom of speech gets you. See where im going? There are tons of options out there, and private individuals and companies are not forced to bend to anyone elses desires.

Kelson Kugler
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Of course, Apple has the right to institute any policies it wants pertaining to its App Store games, but it's hard to say whether this business decision is wise or not.



I know that the policy is going to greatly push me toward buying a Droid, but I don't know how much the common consumer will care.

Andrew Calhoun
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Hurray for the market.

Andrew Calhoun
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Hurray for the market.

John Trauger
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When/if apple's policy starts pushing The App You Want to Android and away from Apple is when the common consumer will care. Apple then has to consider how to hande it.



You can already see Apple falling back and retrenching. They allowed third party tools so The App You Want will continue to exist on iPhone.



Apple may ultimately have to give on its war against flash.

Alan Rimkeit
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Is anyone surprised? Apple has always been a "my way or the highway" sort of company. That is how it is with Steve Jobs and Co. What else is new? Same goes for Nintendo to a point. If one wants some semblance of real freedom one must go play in Sony's or Microsoft's back yard. They are the one's that you have the mature fun. Apple is always going to be like this and expecting them change their "walled garden mentality" is just unrealistic. But that is just my 2 cents adjusted for 2010 deflation....

John Trauger
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Apple = Beta, Mac, Rambus



Android = VHS, PC, DDR



Agreed with Pete Dodd. It's only because Apple is a big, lucrative market that developers complain about their app being turned down. This will change.


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