Platform owner is the new censorship?

Just hours ago I read this interesting article from Engadget. The official Nine Inch Nails application for iPhone/iPod Touch has been rejected by Apple because it provides a streaming version of “The Downward Spiral”, a 1994 song of the band which was deemed by Apple as “objectionable content”. The band’s frontman, Trent Reznor furiously wrote a post about the decision, according to Engadget. The notable part, as written on the Nine Inch Nails forum, is as follows (Warning: offensive language below):

Now, “The Downward Spiral” the album is not available anywhere in the iPhone app. The song “The Downward Spiral” I believe is in a podcast that can be streamed to the app.
Thanks Apple for the clear description of the problem – as in, what do you want us to change to get past your stupid fucking standards?
And while we’re at it, I’ll voice the same issue I had with Wal-Mart years ago, which is a matter of consistency and hypocrisy. Wal-Mart went on a rampage years ago insisting all music they carry be censored of all profanity and “clean” versions be made for them to carry. Bands (including Nirvana) tripped over themselves editing out words, changing album art, etc to meet Wal-Mart’s standards of decency – because Wal-Mart sells a lot of records. NIN refused, and you’ll notice a pretty empty NIN section at any Wal-Mart. My reasoning was this: I can understand if you want the moral posturing of not having any “indecent” material for sale – but you could literally turn around 180 degrees from where the NIN record would be and purchase the film “Scarface” completely uncensored, or buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto where you can be rewarded for beating up prostitutes. How does that make sense?
You can buy The Downward Fucking Spiral on iTunes, but you can’t allow an iPhone app that may have a song with a bad word somewhere in it. Geez, what if someone in the forum in our app says FUCK or CUNT? I suppose that also falls into indecent material. Hey Apple, I just got some SPAM about fucking hot asian teens THROUGH YOUR MAIL PROGRAM. I just saw two guys having explicit anal sex right there in Safari! On my iPhone!
Come on Apple, think your policies through and for fuck’s sake get your app approval scenario together.

Now, “The Downward Spiral” the album is not available anywhere in the iPhone app. The song “The Downward Spiral” I believe is in a podcast that can be streamed to the app.

Thanks Apple for the clear description of the problem – as in, what do you want us to change to get past your stupid fucking standards?

And while we’re at it, I’ll voice the same issue I had with Wal-Mart years ago, which is a matter of consistency and hypocrisy. Wal-Mart went on a rampage years ago insisting all music they carry be censored of all profanity and “clean” versions be made for them to carry. Bands (including Nirvana) tripped over themselves editing out words, changing album art, etc to meet Wal-Mart’s standards of decency – because Wal-Mart sells a lot of records. NIN refused, and you’ll notice a pretty empty NIN section at any Wal-Mart. My reasoning was this: I can understand if you want the moral posturing of not having any “indecent” material for sale – but you could literally turn around 180 degrees from where the NIN record would be and purchase the film “Scarface” completely uncensored, or buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto where you can be rewarded for beating up prostitutes. How does that make sense?

You can buy The Downward Fucking Spiral on iTunes, but you can’t allow an iPhone app that may have a song with a bad word somewhere in it. Geez, what if someone in the forum in our app says FUCK or CUNT? I suppose that also falls into indecent material. Hey Apple, I just got some SPAM about fucking hot asian teens THROUGH YOUR MAIL PROGRAM. I just saw two guys having explicit anal sex right there in Safari! On my iPhone!

Come on Apple, think your policies through and for fuck’s sake get your app approval scenario together.

Whew, it is a long citation indeed. It will not be necessary to repeat why Reznor was pissed off. Apple runs a music store for iPhone/iPod Touch which sells a digital copy of “The Downward Spiral” yet blocks an app for the same devices which streams the same song. It would be roughly equivalent to some governmental policy allowing sales of music with offensive content but prohibiting movies for mature audiences. The approval process administered by Apple, fortunately, is not yet established as a censorship system, largely because Apple’s mobile phones only occupy a portion of the market. You can always choose a different mobile phone should you be discontent with, say, Apple’s choice of “appropriate” apps on their products. Yet, for the overwhelming proportion of developers and consumers of mobile applications on iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple’s stringent yet inconsistent policy can function as if it is a censorship, after all. 

The Nine Inch Nails app rejection looks a bit more awkward because the streamed song is, allegedly, not even an integral part of the application. A similar situation, as noted by the Engadget article, has happened back in March, when Apple blocked Tweetie app on iPhone for showing offensive language on Twitter. In other words, if an application allows the user to even accidentally encounter some inappropriate content on the Internet, the application will be eradicated altogether. Oh, please. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit, self-regulatory body founded in 1994 to provide content ratings on videogames, actually set a prominent precedent in this area. If you have taken a look at or run a videogame lately, you may notice a descriptor which says, “Game Experience May Change During Online Play,” which stands for that content created by players of the game has not been rated by the ESRB. This means that ESRB has not rated and cannot rate all the possible speeches and contents that you and other humans may generate during your online interactions. Lewzr of Destructoid offers an even more “mature” translation of the descriptor (Another warning: potentially offensive language below):

I mean, if the game developers designed a game that was intended for Teen audiences, with Teen content, they shouldn’t be penalized just because a bunch of teens decide to use 4-letter-words when playing online because it makes them feel, you know, like they have a big penis or something.

Yes, and online bulletin boards, fora, blogs, likewise in online games, are filled with 4-letter-words indeed. And how can you penalize or block an application with contents which were not shipped with the application in the first place? That is precisely what has happened to Tweetie and the Nine Inch Nails app, especially when the so-called objectionable content can be accessed through Apple’s own shopping service as well. If these “glitches” or inconsistencies in Apple’s policies are not resolved, it may enfeeble the potentials of iPhones and iPods among the universe of mobile and web software.

If we spare a gaze at the other side, Apple is probably in jeopardy because it has very few precedents when it comes to rating software in overall. Sure, ESRB has been with us since 1994, but in our familiar world, an application was an application and a game was a game. No one felt obliged to, say, give a teen or mature rating to Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, because they are just programs without any significant content to give ratings for. Applications of iPhone/iPod Touch, by contrast, tend to draw very flexible boundaries between applications and entertainment, tools and contents, which warrant very delicate policies to consider and apply. Self-regulation is no evil and quite essential in many situations, but the last thing we need in today’s ecosystem, of all inhibitions, is a censorship.

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