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Editorial: Waiter, there's a Nazi theme in my Android Market (updated)

Earlier tonight our friend Michael Gartenberg tweeted that when he went to the Android Market to search for the word "Jewish," a number of Nazi and Hitler themes turned up. Of course, we had to take a look for ourselves, and sure enough, the search for a fairly innocuous word related to a religion and culture turns up skins which are disgustingly, hatefully pro-Nazism and pro-Hitler. That's a problem, no matter how you look at this.

In the past, we've railed against Apple for its confusing, unfair, and often absurd App Store policies, particularly when it comes to the policing of applications based on content, not code. Steve Jobs has made a point during press conferences to say that the Android Market allows porn apps -- which of course set off a furious debate. Sadly, what Jobs should have pointed out was that the Market allows something far more insidious and damaging than even the hardest-core pornography -- apps that spread hate and propagate the views of a movement that is pretty much universally reviled.

And here's where we have to take a hard look at what censorship really means, and what kind of role it can (and clearly should) play in the new frontier of app marketplaces on mobile devices (and elsewhere). Let's be clear about this right off the bat -- an app store isn't the internet. It's not a free-for-all, it's not an open venue where any type of wares might be hawked. The whole point of these app portals is to provide a controlled service to your users that has guidelines and rules that make getting software onto your phone relatively easy and safe. Whether or not you have stringent policies for what you'll accept (Apple), or few (Google), no one should pretend that this isn't a siloed service that must have rails to operate.

So the question becomes: what are your limits? If you say absolutely no censorship, does it apply to hate-speak? If you say yes to porn, does it mean yes to Hitler themes that appear when you search for seemingly unrelated terms? Does being open mean accepting everything? Or do we have to set some reasonable limits for what we will and won't tolerate?

Think of it this way: app stores are kind of like privately owned bookstores. The owner of the bookstore doesn't have to carry the art book of nudes or the pro-Nazi thesis. In most situations, it doesn't have to carry everything because there are plenty of other places to get those books. That concept is especially true for Android -- users can sideload any applications they want onto their devices. No one is going to tell you that you can't install a Nazi theme on your phone, but we're pretty sure that Google shouldn't make it so easy, and it shouldn't subject a large portion of its users to content that rightfully deserves to sit on the fringes, not in the center.

So ultimately, what's the answer? While tapping out my thoughts on the matter, it seemed painfully clear how difficult of a question this really is. But the part that's confusing is the part that's essentially a lie -- that keeping certain pieces of content out of systems like the App Store or the Android Market equates to censorship... because it doesn't. As I said above, these portals aren't the whole world, they're not the internet -- hell, most people don't even have smartphones that they download applications onto. These are closed systems for specific uses, and something tells me that the people who built these systems don't really want to see them used to distribute Nazi themes. A follow-up tweet from Gartenberg stating that the company is "upset" by the experience and that the apps in question are in violation of its terms of service seems to confirm that.

I don't have the final word on this, and maybe there really isn't a final word to have. I know in my gut that Google doesn't want to be the place to go for all your Nazi needs, but I also know that there's a serious gray area when it comes to the hows and whys of choosing what you will and won't offer to users. In the end, a little common sense goes a long way, and if the Apples and Googles of the world can't find a middle ground that's fair, we're in for a messy, bumpy ride.

Update: Google has apparently pulled the themes due to "a violation of Android content policy."

Update 2: As PC Magazine points out, and as you can plainly read in Android's Content Policy for Developers, Google forbids content in the Market which involves "promotions of hate or incitement of violence," and (free speech-defying as it may seem) "pornography, obscenity, nudity or sexual activity." From where we stand, it looks like this is more an issue of Google's willingness to police its Market than it is about censorship -- Google definitely has rules about what it will and won't allow in its store.