iPhone Developer Creates App Criticizing The iPhone; App Is Quickly Pulled

September 16, 2011 Posted by zachary

This post was originally published on TechDirt.

Molleindustria is an app developer who makes a line of controversial and political games. Some of its more well known games include McDonalds Videogame, Operation: Pedopriest, and Oiligarchy. It just recently announced and released its latest game, Phone Story. This particular game takes the player through the cruel world of smart phone production using a series of mini games depicting the mining of coltan from the Congo using child labor, the suicides in the Foxconn factories and, of course, e-waste disposal in third world countries.

On top of all those themes, the game was to be released on the very platform it criticized: the iPhone.

It didn’t last long on the platform.

Just hours after being approved, Apple yanked it from the app store for four separate violations.

15.2 Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected

16.1 Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected

21.1 Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free

21.2 The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS

The key story going around the internet is that Apple is silencing a critic of its platform and business practices, and it’s just using the iOS guidelines as a tool to do so.

Let’s put that aside and focus on something a little different: Apple’s arbitrary code enforcement. According to Molleindustria:

I’m very familiar with the App Store policy, and the game is designed to be compliant with it.

If you check the guidelines, Phone Story doesn’t really violate any rule except for the generic ‘excessively objectionable and crude content’ and maybe the ‘depiction of abuse of children’. Yes, there’s dark humor and violence but it’s cartoonish and stylized – way more mellow than a lot of other games on the App Store.

If Molleindustria took the extra effort to be compliant, how did they end up breaking those above rules? It’s hard to say as even Molleindustria doesn’t quite know.

Rules 21.1 and 21.2 are the easy ones to counter. Molleindustria did pledge that all proceeds from the app sales will be going to charity, but that is not done in the app itself. That is Molleindustria giving away the 70% of sales it earns to a charity. It was not asking any buyers to donate to a charity in the app or even outside the app. I guess Apple just didn’t want to be part of the charitable aspect.

Rule 15.2 might be a sticking point. Molleindustria admits:

a new version of Phone Story that depicts the violence and abuse of children involved in the electronic manufacturing supply chain in a non-crude and non-objectionable way… will be a difficult task

Yet, is depicting near real life conditions of child labor really objectionable? Would a news app reporting on child labor and showing a video of children in the working environment get a pass? Or is the problem that such a depiction is interactive in this case? It isn’t like this game is a baby shaker app or anything. The child abuse depicted has an editorial purpose.

Finally, we come to Rule 16.1. Of the four, this rule is probably the most frequently broken by app developers as it is completely subjective by nature. What one app reviewer finds objectionable another would not. In this case, an app reviewer did not find the app objectionable or crude, but someone in Apple’s leadership did. How is an app developer supposed to know what people they don’t know find objectionable? I know many people who think the various “fart apps” or pimple popping apps on the app store are crude, and many others who think they are funny.

In Apple’s case it is a matter of “it knows it when it sees it.” Not really the best course of action.

Apple is no stranger to controversy over its arbitrary code enforcement. The first few years of the iPhone’s life were rife with stories about apps being banned for doing nothing more than connecting people to content that is freely available online via the Safari browser. For that reason, it really comes as no surprise at all that it would attempt to silence a critic using arbitrary code enforcement.

There is also the possibility that Apple just doesn’t think that Molleindustria is a professional satirist. The guidelines actually do have a code in place to allow such “professional satire” to skirt those other rules:

14.2 Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary

So what is it Apple? Is it okay to be mean spirited in our commentary as long as Apple is not the target? I guess so.

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