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Apple, Drone Strikes, and the Limits of Censorship

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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September 5, 2012

Wired reported last week that the Apple App Store has rejected an app that compiles news reports in order to map overseas U.S. drone strikes, and provide users a pop-up notification whenever a drone strike has been reported.

Apple rejected the app several times, at first citing problems with its functionality, and then telling the developer that the app “contains content that many audiences would find objectionable.”

U.S. drone strikes have become a highly controversial issue, with critics saying that the strikes are counterproductive and immoral (and the ACLU taking issue with the legality of some of the strikes). The issue has emerged as one of the hottest foreign policy issues of our time.

An app providing a stream of basic information about the conduct of a policy that is the subject of current public debate would seem as American as, uh, apple pie.

Of course, Apple is a private company not covered by the First Amendment, and the App Store is not a public forum. In fact, Apple is arguably like the New York Times, with a right to pick and choose what it “publishes.”

But aside from what Apple has the right to do, you have to wonder how many of its customers say to themselves, “wow, I got a new iPhone, oh boy, now I can access all the information in the world that Apple allows to filter into my new device because nobody finds it objectionable!” Most people would be surprised to find, upon buying a desktop computer, that HP, Dell, or Lenovo was going to tell them what programs and content they could and could not install. We must hope that the computers we carry in our pockets (our smartphones) will eventually be as free. By providing a leading smartphone operating system, Apple is now a major player in the telecommunications space, and while not a monopoly, is certainly participating in a highly networked, oligopolistic market.

Regardless of the legalities of Apple’s “private censorship,” ultimately we need information to flow freely through the major nodes of our information infrastructure. If major players decide to censor information because one party or another takes offense, free speech and democracy will be the worse for it.

Companies have a choice: they can embrace the raucous, often messy path of freedom and openness, or they can try to take the path of picking and choosing who can communicate with whom, and how.

One problem with picking and choosing—private censorship—is that it can be plenty messy in its own way. Apple has found itself in a nonstop string of controversies over its editorial decisions for the App Store. When you’re the gatekeeper, of course, you get criticized not only for what you block, but what you allow. In recent years the company has:

• Blocked apps from cartoonist Mark Fiore because, according to Apple, he “ridicules public figures.”
• Warned a developer that it would block anything using the word “gay.
• Became embroiled in a controversy over an anti-gay “Manhattan Declaration” manifesto when it approved and then kicked out an app that allowed users to vote for the declaration.
• Rejected a dictionary app unless profane words were removed.
• Pulled a “gay cure” app from its store following a “wave of complaints.”
Pulled an App that notified users of the location of police sobriety checkpoints—essentially, allowing citizens to share and distribute information about police activity. That move followed the writing of a letter by several Senators pressuring the company into doing so. (Blackberry also agreed to censor the app, while Google did not.)

This kind of capricious suppression is reminiscent of the behavior of an authoritarian regime, leaving app developers at their mercy, forced to guess what will and will not pass muster, and often looking just plain silly in their old-fashioned Comstockery.

True, as Wired points out, the Apple reviewers face a very difficult task—according to this article, sorting through a “slush pile” of thousands of submitted apps, much of it “garbage.” Protecting their customers from the dreary task of having to wade through such garbage is probably the idea. But that kind of sorting task is something that the marketplace and/or the crowdsourced hive mind (not the same thing) is pretty good at.

And some of Apple’s silly decisions might just be quirky actions by individual employees.

But the problem with censorship—public or private—is that it’s devilishly difficult to administer consistently. A company like Apple, once it decides to become a gatekeeper, should not be surprised to quickly find itself in a morass—not only the morass of “junk” in its slush pile, but a political morass as it gets drawn into various passionate debates, and a public relations morass as its judgments are ridiculed.

This latest incident, the suppression of the drone-strike app, might be just another example of the capricious stupidity that censors the world over always seem to display at least partly because of the inherent difficulties of their “art.” But in this case the repeated rejections, their shifting rationales, and the alignment of this action with the interests of our government, cannot help but create suspicion of darker possibilities—that the company in some way has agreed to start protecting the interests of our national security establishment (if not necessarily our national security). Similar questions were raised when the company allowed and then three days later removed a Wikileaks App from the store, at a time when the U.S. government was pressuring numerous companies to financially blockade the reporting organization (a blockade that companies are striving to maintain).

That brings up a final disadvantage of censorship: it always ends up being misused. By blocking the drone-strike app, is Apple helping their customers—or the national security agencies? They’re certainly not helping their country.

Free speech—it’s is not just in the Constitution, it’s also a good idea!

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