Apple's stringent App Store rules mean some developers now censor themselves. We examine the insidious chilling effect Apple's 'guidelines' have on free expression.

Last week Apple was unfairly maligned by a comic writer, and then by large sections of the press, as an authoritarian censor, and by implication, as a homophobic one. But the truth - that in this case and many others Apple simply doesn't need to censor apps, because developers censor themselves in deference to the company's strict policies - is worrying in itself.

As you have probably read by now, Apple did not censor issue 12 of the graphic novel Saga - which is sold through the ComiXology iOS app, among other outlets - because it featured "two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex", as writer Brian K Vaughan said at the time. (He also pointed out that other sexual images had appeared in the series in the past, suggesting, again unfairly, that Apple objected to depictions of gay sex specifically.) On the contrary, the maker of the container app, Comics by ComiXology, had taken it upon itself to pull the plug.

"As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps," said Comixology CEO David Steinberger at the time. "Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today."

Apple promptly got in touch with ComiXology to explain that this was not the case, and Saga number 12 is now available on the app for £1.99, as well as on the company's website. All's well that ends well, right? Not entirely.

Comics by ComiXology SAGA 12

App Store censorship: A chilling effect

One of the features of a 'chilling effect' - the instinct for self-censorship under the threat of legal reprisals - is that it is only rarely visible; most of the time speech is being suppressed without anyone knowing about it. (In Apple's case, of course, it isn't a legal but a commercial threat that is feared: the danger of expending time and money on a piece of content that cannot be sold.) And so ComiXology may not be the only developer trying to second-guess Apple's policies.

"We will reject Apps for any content or behaviour that we believe is over the line," Apple writes in its App Store Review Guidelines [developer login required]. "What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it."

The vagueness is the killer. Since Apple can't explain exactly what it objects to, many developers are going to play it safe and avoid anything with even a whiff of scandal.

With iTunes and its App Store, Apple is in a phenomenally powerful position with regards to the dissemination of cultural offerings, and of course the rules it imposes will have an effect on the sort of material that is produced. If ComiXology was under the impression that gay sex wasn't allowed, it's reasonable to imagine that other creative firms were too, and chose not to depict or refer to this in their work so that they would be able to sell through Apple. Brian K Vaughan complained; not everyone would have done the same thing in his position.

Ultimately there is a danger that Apple's iOSphere - and the larger creative world, because of the company's commercial clout - will veer away from anything that adopts a political viewpoint that doesn't match Apple's. And we slide towards a society with the values of Middle American Walmart customers - one that can't talk about the human costs of US drone strikes without being silenced.

US drone strike push notification - rejected app

App Store censorship: Apps are different

Apple has always defended its curatorial prudishness by pointing out that it only censors apps and games, leaving music, books and films largely untouched. But the boundaries are increasingly blurred. A comics app contains comics, after all. Many iOS games are part game and part interactive book. And in any case, what's so special about apps that they don't get to express objectionable opinions?

Apple says: "If you want to criticise a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app." But why are those formats privileged in this way? And if we want creative people to express themselves through interesting and thought-provoking apps and games, what will be lost if they feel that they need to censor their views in order to be seen by an Apple audience?

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See also:

Apple bans drone attack 'tally' app

Apple censoring iCloud emails and attachments

Apple under fire for 'censoring' iBook

Apple rejects Electronic Frontier Foundation app over YouTube f-word parody

iOS apps that access UDIDs 'blocked by Apple'