Sunday, October 20, 2013

Apple Justice

Frank Pasquale

Apple’s notoriously secretive business practices have alarmed legal scholars like Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Wu. They worry the company will undermine creativity and openness by centralizing decisions about innovation. Andrew Tutt has suggested that large digital platforms have too much power to censor speech. Recent decisions at Apple’s app store-which determines the applications that can run on Apple products-reinforce their concerns, as Jussi Parikka explains:
[The game] Phone Story, which is available for Android phones and banned on the iTunes app store, elaborates the production chains and conditions of work from mineral mines to Apple supplier Foxconn's factories in the "special economic zone" of Shenzhen . . . . The device is enabled by dubious labor practices, including child labor in the mines of Congo; appalling [factory] working conditions, which lead to a number of suicides in the Foxconn factories in China; and the planned obsolescence designed into the product which also contributes to its weighty share of electronic waste problems.
[T]he game was available for the iPhone on Apple's App Store for only a short period before it was banned. . . . [in part because it] depicted "violence or abuse of children" and "excessively objectionable or crude content."
A similar fate befell "In a Permanent Save State" and "Drones+" (an app that would aggregate news stories on drone targets, map them, and deliver a pop-up notification whenever a new strike was reported). Its creator, Josh Begley, believed that real-time notifications served as a way of altering Drones+'s users’ sense of the salience of what has been an underreported military initiative.

Apple rejected Drones+ twice. First it said the app was “not useful,” since it was merely aggregating news stories. Given the extraordinary simplicity of other apps they approved (for example, one simply displays a flame on the screen), that rationale was not convincing. Next, another rejection letter announced that the app’s content was “objectionable and crude,” a violation of the App Store Guidelines. But Begley’s app merely quoted news stories and plotted where they happened on a map. Many of the news stories described carnage, but given the surfeit of approved apps that actually depicted it, the decency rationale seemed obviously pretextual.

Say what you will of Silicon Valley grandees; they certainly have an eye for PR. No wonder they've become the poster boys for American technocapital. Unfortunately, it looks like Apple's map of the moral universe is about as warped as its depictions of the physical one.

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