Today in Top-Down Stupidity

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Recently Steve Jobs issued a Fatwa against “overtly sexual content” on the iPhone. Some Apple employee apparently decided that selling bathing suits to women is an “overtly sexual” activity, and blocked the app.

I had an argument with Adam Thierer earlier this week about how outraged we should get over this policy. Adam made the entirely valid point that it’s Apple’s app store and they’re entitled to carry whatever apps they want. This is true enough. But likewise this is my blog, and I’m entitled to write unflattering things about them in response.

But I think the key thing to focus on isn’t the abstract question of whether porn on iPhones is good or bad. The key thing to recognize is how fundamentally broken the process itself is. “Overtly sexual content” is a concept that seems clear in the abstract but gets leaky once you have to actually classify tens of thousands of applications. Apple is going to make mistakes, and when they do hapless developers are going to find their apps blocked, often with little explanation or recourse. Also, Apple is going to change its mind periodically, and when they do the affected developers are going to find their hard-earned apps rendered worthless overnight. This is no way to run a technology platform. It’s unfair to developers and it doesn’t scale. And this is precisely why it would be better for everyone if Apple could come up with an application distribution scheme that didn’t require so much central planning.

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9 Responses to Today in Top-Down Stupidity

  1. Ed Felten says:

    Apple’s application *distribution* scheme doesn’t require central planning (in the sense that you meant). Apple could distribute apps from a centralized app store, but disclaim any right to vet apps for content. Or they could declare that they will never remove apps except for certain limited reasons such as fraud prevention.

  2. Adam Thierer says:

    So, when you say “Apple could come up with an application distribution scheme that didn’t require so much central planning,” what exactly does that mean? Apple already has Terms of Service, but there are ALWAYS going to be things in ANY terms of service that are fuzzy. “Security,” “stability,” “safety,” etc.. these are not exercises in exact science. So what would you have Apple do in this case?

    How about this: “Penetration-based sexual images, videos, and applications shall not be allowed in the Apple Apps Store.” That seems like a pretty easy rule and fairly unambiguous. But everything after hard-core porn gets more and more difficult to define. What about an app that is just completely naked women pole-dancing? It’s not hard-core porn, but I bet Apple would want to keep it off their platform. Writing a rule that covers that but not a Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Edition app might be challenging.

    The point here is that (a) crafting terms of service for acceptable content/conduct on media/communications platforms is always difficult, but (b) Apple and others should have the editorial discretion to do so. If customers don’t like it, they can (and do) complain vociferously. And sometimes companies change their editorial approach in response to such complaints. Other times, however, they will be under just as much pressure from other forces to to the exact opposite.

    So, when you say: “The key thing to recognize is how fundamentally broken the process itself is,” you seem to fail to appreciate how this process is pretty damn challenging for any platform developer. The only way this becomes “easy” is if the platform owner just takes any and all content people throw at them. Libertarian-minded people like the two of us probably wouldn’t mind that. But the community of interests that Apple serves is broad and diverse. They are in the same boat as a traditional newspaper editor or broadcaster who was trying to juggle a lot of interests at once and inevitably making some folks unhappy in the process. But that doesn’t mean the process is “broken”; it just means it is difficult.

    Apple should be more transparent about what they do and do not allow in the Apps Store and strive for brighter line rules. But even as they do, some folks will still complain. And, luckily, there’s always another place to go for service.

  3. Adam, again Apple doesn’t have any of these problems with the Mac platform. So the answer to your question is that Apple should give users who don’t like the app store the option to get their apps from somewhere else. Then Apple could be as censorious as it liked with the App Store and I wouldn’t care.

    You’re assuming that Apple will run a centralized bottleneck and then asking me to explain how to run the bottleneck better. But my point is that the bottleneck is a bad idea. Companies that run open technology platforms don’t “take any and all content people throw at them.” They allow their users to consume the content of their choice, with the platform owner completely out of the picture.

  4. Ryan Radia says:

    Tim, as a consumer, I’m in 100% agreement with your preference regarding the iPhone app store.
    But there’s a big problem — plenty of folks have been making the same kind of argument that you make above for years, and guess what? Consumers and even developers still flock to the iPhone! In spite of Apple’s absurd, overly restrictive, and often downright arbitrary app store policies, the iPhone continues to gain market share (even as Android has come into its own) and, leaving aside some questionable anectodal evidence, mobile app developers still spend more time developing for the iPhone than for any other mobile platform.
    Of course, in the long run, the more open nature of WiMo/Android will give those platforms an important leg up over the iPhone. But I imagine a sufficiently large number of consumers like Apple’s modus operandi enough that the iPhone will remain a major player in the wireless device world for years to come. And that’s fine — what’s wrong with a company likre Apple successfully catering to consumers who, in my view, have dumb preferences? By now, I think it’s safe to say Apple’s practices aren’t a fluke, but a wise and pro-competitive business practices. The market’s working, and that’s all one can ask for!

  5. Also, this isn’t just about the Mac. I can view pornographic audio, video, and PDF files on my iPhone. Nobody blames Apple for that. People understand that technology companies aren’t responsible for the content and applications their users freely choose to download. It’s only when Apple decides to reserve a monopoly for itself on app distribution that people become upset.

  6. Ryan, you could have made the same argument about AOL circa 1998. I think it’s clear in hindsight that AOL’s business model was a dead end, but at the time it looked like the market was endorsing AOL’s approach. In reality, I think AOL was succeeding in spite of, rather than because of, its proprietary content model.

    Likewise, I think the iPhone would be even more successful if Apple allowed third-party applications. And I think Apple will either be forced to open up or be beaten by a platform that does.

  7. Ryan Radia says:

    Good point, Tim. If Apple is like AOL circa, say, 1997, then the iPhone could enjoy a couple more good years before a long, gradual decline. I guess we’ll see.

  8. Sean L. says:

    I don’t agree with the Apple/AOL comparison. AOL is in content delivery business (be it proprietary/partnered content or just delivering the internet itself). Its downfall stems from its main method of delivering their content (dial up over analog lines) being rendered obsolete by DSL and cable modem. This would be more akin to the downfall of trains upon the invention of the passenger airplane.

    As for Apple, I’ve said this here before, but what people keep forgetting is they are not in the app delivery business at all. They are in the experience delivery business. If keeping a tight ship on the apps means a significantly improved experience for their core user base, even at the expense of some disgruntled developers, they will do that, and they will be profitable while doing it.

    A few 3rd party developers whining in the blogosphere does nothing to detract from the iPhone’s technical and artistic position in the marketplace. But a few buggy, virus-loaded apps would.

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