Apple’s New App Store Guidelines: Vague, Casual, and Somewhat Menacing

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Steve Jobs says it's not nice to shake babies. Photo: iPhone image: Spencer Platt/Getty; Baby Shaker: YouTube

As Apple is pleased to point out in its new guidelines released today, the App Store has made some of the tens of thousands of developers who build for the iPhone and iPad rich. (Well, as rich as a 70/30 split on the price of the app and a 60/40 split on its ads can make you.) Apple has also managed to tick a number of developers off. First, with its non-disclosure agreement that prohibited developers from sharing code or discussing programming tips. The NDA was subsequently lifted. Then, for paying disgruntled coders exceptionally late, even after Apple posted its best second-quarter earnings to date. But code monkeys have mostly been annoyed with Apple's inscrutable, unarticulated approval and censorship policies, which banned not only apps featuring scantily clad vixens, shaking babies, and shaking breasts, but also an app that promoted single-payer health care and a Google Voice app that offered better phone service than Apple.

Fashion magazines like Vice and Dazed & Confused have grumbled internally in the past about having to weed out nipples and nudity. D&C Insiders even nicknamed their May issue "the Iran edition," for Apple's aversion to visible female flesh. Even bigger brands synonymous with women in various state of undress, like Playboy and Sports Illustrated, have not been safe from the flick of Steve Jobs's ruler.

So what does Apple's newly codified censorship policy [PDF] look like? Let the company defer to the highest court in the land:


We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. 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.

If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.

Hmmm, perhaps that last bit has something to do with the "thanks, but we'll pass on commenting" responses we've been getting from developers today.

The vaguely defined — or is it definitely vague? — censorship language doesn't exactly lay developers' fears to rest. Scott Rosenberg at Wordyard says, "'relaxation' is not the word that will spring to mind." It's particularly troubling, he adds, because the App Store is trying to bill itself as the New Newsstand. "The idea of Apple as the keeper of such a newsstand never sat right with me: I just don’t like the idea of my information diet being regulated by any company, let alone a company as tightly wound as Apple." Anoop Ranganath, an iPhone developer who works at Foursquare (but doesn't speak for the company), told Intel he sees it differently: "First and foremost, it's Apple's App Store, and they have the right to allow whatever apps in it that they please."

Some people, most notably Omar Hamoui, the head of AdMob, Google's mobile-advertising platform, think the new guidelines are peachy-keen. No surprise there. One of the biggest changes in the developer agreement is Apple taking out language that seemed to be "specifically written to ban AdMob." That just brings the practice in line with theory: Despite the ban, Apple allowed developers to use AdMob's technology to place ads on the iPhone. Nathanial Trienens, co-founder of Manhattan-based Fuzz Productions, which has created more than 50 apps for the iPhone and iPad, told Intel, "Apple's practice is a little less harsh than what they say sometimes."

For the most part, developers seem happy to finally have some written guidelines to work with. But it's still pretty dang vague. "There's still a lot of ambiguity and a lot of subjective statements," says Trienens.

One of the biggest problems with censorship, say Trienens and Ranganath, is the fact that unless it's an obvious violation, like copyright infringement or naked lady parts, developers aren't informed until after the fact. Then have to tweak the app and start all over at the start of the approval queue, a lengthy process. Of course, if your problem is "Hey we built an app that revolutionized the way you talk on the phone and you won’t let us put it in," as Trienens describes the Google Voice dismissal, you're probably shit out of luck either way.

Responses to the guidelines have also remarked on their "casual," Jobsian tone. For example, this little piece of advice, "We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps."

Apple's New Guidelines [PDF]
How will the App Store’s “new newsstand” be censored? [Wordyard]
An Update on Apple’s Terms of Service [Google Mobile Ads Blog]
A Taste of What’s New in the Updated App Store License Agreement [Daring Fireball]