Apple's porn purge underscores its hypocrisy

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The conundrum of exactly how to identify salacious content was perhaps best summarized by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964--in reversing a Supreme Court of Ohio ruling that convicted a Cleveland Heights theater for exhibiting the Louis Malle film Les Amants, a movie the state declared obscene, Stewart wrote "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hardcore pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." While the concept of defining obscenity eluded Stewart's grasp, Apple feels it can do better--responding to requests from both consumers and developers alike, the computing giant has recently removed as many as 5,000 adult-themed iPhone and iPod touch applications from its App Store.

Information Week reports that Apple is contacting developers of sexually explicit apps, explaining that a flurry of consumer complaints prompted its decision to revise policies regarding mature content. "Whenever we receive customer complaints about objectionable content we review them," an Apple spokesperson writes in an e-mailed statement. "If we find these apps contain inappropriate material we remove them and request the developer make any necessary changes in order to be distributed by Apple." The article adds that consumers have been voicing their concerns over the App Store on Apple's support forum, linking to a now-unavailable thread where one customer complains that the computing giant's parental controls failed to work as advertised. "The [parental control] settings [in iTunes] do stop me from purchasing the apps," the post explains. "The 'Buy App/Get App' button is grayed out so I cannot get the app, but I am still able to preview the app, including screen shots of graphic content along with detailed descriptions."

Developers have voiced similar concerns to Apple, contending that sexually-themed software now represents as much as a third of the App Store's 140,000-plus applications. Developers argue that the proliferation of adult apps hampers discoverability of rival applications, and some have reported the problem as a bug in hopes of attracting Apple's complete attention to the issue. But rather than striking all potentially objectionable apps for good, some developers are lobbying for the creation of a so-called App Store "red light district" for applications that contain overtly sexual content.

Discrepancies are already surfacing. As of Monday afternoon, the App Store still offers the 99-cent Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Challenge, an application that warns of "Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity" and "Frequent/Intense/Mature/Suggestive Themes," with downloads limited to consumers at least 17 years of age. On the opposite side of the balance sheet, designer swimwear retailer Simply Beach issued a press release to announce its swimsuit shopping app was removed by Apple due to "overtly sexual content." In a statement, Simply Beach parent firm Simply Group's managing director Gerrard Dennis notes "The email arrived straight to a junk mail folder on Friday and to be honest we thought it was a spam joke. We then checked iTunes to find the app had in fact been removed. It seems like political correctness gone mad. It's just women in bikinis, swimsuits and kaftans."

The Apple crackdown also brings to mind past App Store controversies involving Comedy Central's animated hit South Park and industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. A year ago, Apple rejected a South Park iPhone application developed under the supervision of the comedy's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, contending that the app content is "potentially offensive" even though Apple's iTunes continues to offer full-length episodes of the series for premium download; weeks later, Apple turned down an update to the official Nine Inch Nails app, contending it contained "objectionable content," specifically the NIN song "The Downward Spiral"--a track also available for sale from iTunes. I'm not sure how to define obscenity either, but I do know inconsistency and hypocrisy when I see them, and so far, Apple is engaging in behavior far more questionable than many of the apps it's purged. -Jason

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