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Apple lightens up on some nudity apps

By Kevin Kelleher
Sunday, June 20, 2010; G03

Apple, it turns out, didn't rain on Bloomsday after all. Two days before the annual celebration of James Joyce and his novel "Ulysses," Apple notified the creators of a Ulysses app that the unedited version could be resubmitted into the iTunes App Store.

To recap, Apple had originally asked the authors of Ulysses Seen to remove a cartoon image of a young goddess in the nude. Rob Berry and Josh Levitas created their adaptation as a Web comic but realized the iPad's format would be ideal for it. They complied with Apple's request and altered several other images they thought Apple might object to, essentially bringing Apple on as a silent editor for their labor of love.

The news first appeared on the New Yorker's Book Bench blog and was picked up by other sites, including TBM. It began to snowball as sites such as BoingBoing, Gizmodo and the New York Times picked up the story. Then Apple acknowledged it erred in censoring Ulysses Seen, as well as a second iPad app, a comic adaptation of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which features images of two men kissing. On Monday, Trudy Miller of Apple's public relations department sent this e-mail:

"We made a mistake. When the art panel edits of the Ulysses Seen app and the graphic novel adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest app were brought to our attention, we offered the developers the opportunity to resubmit their original drawings and update their apps."

That was the outcome the creators of Ulysses Seen wanted all along. "We couldn't have hoped for anything more," said Chad Rutkowsky, an attorney and business manager for Throwaway Horse, which created Ulysses Seen. "This is the kind of reasoned dialogue we hoped would happen. We're thrilled to celebrate Bloomsday with the full expression of the app."

Apple deserves credit for being flexible here, by asking the developers to resubmit their apps. It would be nice if it ended happily here, with the unexpurgated content restored. But I wonder whether that will happen.

In making the decision to block porn and sexual content from apps on the iPhone and the iPad, Apple signed up for a long series of such controversies, and I really doubt whether this marks an end to the brushfires it will need to put out. Apple's moves echo another instance of backpedaling, when the company banned and then allowed a political-satire app by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Fiore.

On one hand, those controversies are free publicity for Apple. On the other, they are coming at a time when Apple is facing anger from developers, frustration from consumers and investigations from regulators. It's publicity that Apple could probably do without.

That's because this isn't a black-and-white issue. In fact, the shades of grey involved are so fine that not even the high-resolution Retina Display of the iPhone 4 can sort them all out. Apple isn't necessarily a good company or an evil one. Nudity isn't necessarily obscene or necessarily welcome on all iPads. And media platforms always struggle with risque content. On a medium such as the Web, porn is so readily available that a 5-year-old can find it. On broadcast TV, you're fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for saying an obscenity.

I'd argue that neither medium is better than the other. Both fail at accounting for the subjectivity of what is appropriate content and what isn't. Everyone knows porn when they see it. But media is structurally incapable of meeting varying consumer demand. Some don't want to see porn, others do -- and among those who do, some extreme forms are unacceptable.

I would bet that Steve Jobs understood this back in February, when Apple kicked 5,000 apps out of the App Store for having what it deemed sexual content. But iPhones and iPads represent a new media format, one that publishers large and small have great hopes for, and Apple understands that porn can be as toxic to many mainstream customers as the threat of computer viruses. If Apple was going to block one, it had to block the other.

Apple is a company, not a government entity, and it's free to block whatever it wants in its retail store. The controversy lies in its execution of this goal. Apple decided to solve the problem by being abstract in the extreme. The iPhone developer agreement decrees 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.

What is Apple to make of the fact that many longtime customers like me find the capricious censorship of quality content to be itself obscene? The vague language in the developer agreement is a convenient, quick fix to a complex problem, a solution that only breeds more and more problems as time goes on. When Apple blocked those 5,000 apps, I wrote:

"There are two problems with an inconsistent and arbitrary porn-blocking policy. Actual porn always finds a way around it; and the harder you try to block it, the more you end up censoring content that isn't porn at all. . . . Apple is so successful in 2010 that it has become many things. Add to that list one more thing: arbiter of porn on the mobile Web."

Since then, we've seen how difficult it is for Apple to blaze a trail through this thorny foliage. Revered classics like "Ulysses" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" are adapted as iPad apps, and those adaptations are censored. Apple responds by reconsidering the apps. Then more apps are blocked in ways that seem unjust and Orwellian, and Apple adapts again. It is a slow, hamfisted process that causes headaches for everyone involved.

The other issue -- one that has not been in the news lately but will be -- is how poorly iPhones and iPads filter out porn. Android's open nature allows users to download porn apps from unofficial app stores as well as through mobile browsers. And yet how often do you hear complaints about porn on Android phones (that is, beyond those made by Steve Jobs)? Google has its share of controversies, but this isn't one.

Yet it's often pointed out that the Safari browser on iPhones and iPads calls up porn from many Web sites (unless they use Flash). And Apple pre-installs the Safari app on every Web-ready product it sells. By positioning itself as the porn-free gateway to the mobile Web, Apple is setting itself up for protests from anti-porn crusaders.

As a result of Apple's decision to wade into the porn morass, it's quite possible that the company could end up being seen as both as an opponent to free speech and an purveyor of porn. Not an easy trick to pull off.

-- The Big Money

Kevin Kelleher is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay area.

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