Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Child Porn Comes to the iPhone (and the App Store Review Process Comes Under Fire)...

What can Apple do about the new tidal wave of objectionable material that is becoming available on the iPhone?

Last week, an iPhone application called "BeautyMeter" (similar to the popular website "HotOrNot.com") displayed a nude photo of a 15-year-old girl, and Apple quickly removed the BeautyMeter application from the App Store.

This might seem sensible except for the fact that BeautyMeter is a user-generated content site - meaning that, like MySpace or Facebook, it simply allows people to submit photos on their own. By removing the entire application based solely on one individual posting one picture is, in this Web 2.0 Age, a gross overreaction. If that's going to be their policy, they might as well take down Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, and the majority of apps right now. As these websites have learned over the past few years, and as U.S. law has recognized, you remove specific objectionable content and ban the user who submitted it; you do not shut down the entire site or, in this case, the entire app.

The problem lies with the App Store Review Process. Any developer who writes a program for the iPhone has to submit it for review before it is actually made available on the App Store. That too seems sensible on the surface. However, what has become increasingly frustrating for these developers is that Apple does not tell developers or the public exactly how the decision process works. One imagines groups of summer interns sitting around a table deciding the fates of apps that were developed after many months and many thousands of dollars were invested in them.

The Review Process has already led to some very questionable decisions (some of which were later reversed) such as removing a Twitter app called "Tweetie" because by linking to the Twitter website it could possibly give access to "offensive words". The Review Process also recently removed a Nine Inch Nails application for streaming a song with offensive lyrics - even though the same song was already available on iTunes, garnering severe criticism from the band. But perhaps the most clear example of the Review Process' inconsistencies was how the novelty fart app "Pull My Finger" was initially rejected from the App Store, while the game "Baby Shaker", which involved shaking a baby to death, was initially approved before it was pulled down amid parental outrage.

Apple is now rightfully coming under heavy fire for using, as CNN described it, "nebulous policies" about which apps get the company's stamp of approval.

There are over 50,000 apps available on the App Store, and the vast majority, as well as the most popular, of these apps are based on user-generated content. Preventing any objectionable material from becoming even temporarily available is an impossible task. The solution is rather clear: require developers to let their users flag objectionable content, and require those developers to implement their own processes for removing such material in a timely manner. Only if they fail to do so and act responsibly should Apple remove the entire app.
  

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