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The chilling effect of Apple's App Store censorship

David Price | April 16, 2013
Apple didn't censor 'gay sex scene' comic - app maker ComiXology censored itself. But is that worse?

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."


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