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On the Manhattan Declaration and Apple's curation of the App Store

TJ Luoma, @tjluoma

After receiving thousands of complaints, Apple removed the "Manhattan Declaration" app from the App Store this week. The app, which espoused anti-gay and anti-abortion views, was originally released by a religious group founded by Chuck Colson.

The app's ejection from the store has raised the ire of some who now decry Apple for not supporting free speech and/or being anti-Christian. Let's see if we can separate the light from the heat on this issue.

First of all, stories about App Store rejections have been a staple since the dawn of the App Store. Then came stories of apps that were accepted and subsequently removed. The most infamous instances of yo-yoing in and out of the store were the Google Voice apps, which have since been restored after over a year's absence, but that is a rare case. Most times, when an app is removed, it is gone forever. Some great apps have been yanked, including MiTube, Camera+, iDOS and many more.

On the inappropriate content front, Apple also removed a "Baby Shaker" application and a huge number of apps that were deemed "too sexy" for the App Store. Of course, porn apps have been banned since the App Store was announced.

More recently, Apple published a set of App Store Guidelines, where the company has gone out of its way to make sure that people with religious beliefs are not targeted by malicious or hatemongering app developers. The document, which reads as if it might have been penned by Steve Jobs himself, includes this paragraph:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

Apple has made it clear from day one that the App Store is "curated" according to its standards, and included in those standards is a clear message that attacking religion is off-limits. The document goes on to add in section 14.1 that "Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way [sic] will be rejected." That language is repeated in section 19.1, which states "Apps containing references or commentary about a religious, cultural or ethnic group that are defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence will be rejected."

Some of these terms are clearly subjective: what offends me may not offend you and vice versa. Who is the final arbiter? Clearly, as far as the App store is concerned, Apple is. As a non-governmental entity, Apple is within its rights to exercise whatever restraints on its platform it chooses to implement -- the First Amendment applies to laws abridging the freedom of the press, not the actions or decisions of those who own the presses.

Section 19.2 adds "Apps may contain or quote religious text provided the quotes or translations are accurate and not misleading. Commentary should be educational or informative rather than inflammatory."

Again, Apple has built-in protections for religious beliefs. There are a great number of applications available for people of religious faith (and, it should be noted, also apps for atheists), which severely undercuts any charge that Apple is "anti-religion" or "anti-Christian."

What Apple has not allowed are apps where "Group A" attacks "Group B." The App Store Guidelines make it clear that Apple will not accept apps that attack religion, and Apple's recent action makes it clear that Apple will also reject -- if not initially, then upon further review -- apps where religious people attack others.

Those who want to accuse Apple of "censorship" should be asked if they would be willing to support the other apps that Apple has rejected or removed, including the porn apps. The App Store is not a free-for-all, and it is not a democracy. It never claimed to be. Apple has made its intent to "censor" the App Store clear from the beginning. People of religious faith have benefited from Apple's policies, not to mention being free of the worry that Little Johnny is going to download a Hustler app on that new iPod touch his grandparents gave him for Christmas (although, without parental controls in Safari, Johnny might well surf over to the site). If consumers don't want that, they have plenty of other mobile device choices with free-for-all application ecosystems.

At the end of the day, having the app removed may be a disguised boon for the sponsors, versus having it sitting quietly on the store. Many observers have noticed that app developers get a lot of free publicity when websites write about their run-ins with Apple's review board. The same will be true for the Manhattan Declaration, which has gotten a lot of free press from articles like the one you are reading now.

"If you want to criticize a religion, write a book," says Apple in the App Store Guidelines. Perhaps the guidelines could have also said "If you want to criticize others based on your religion, write a book." Or you can create a website, which you are free to view via Safari on iOS devices if you so choose.

[Speaking of curation, some comments that were devolving into personal attacks have been removed; you may see stray replies to comments that are no longer in the thread. –Ed.]

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