Rumble in Apple's 'Walled Garden'

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So the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore has been invited to resubmit the work that Apple rejected last year for the iPhone (and thus now iPad). And he's really a big fan! Plus, everybody knows even Pulitzer honorees don't mind a "Banned in Boston" moment now and then. End of story?

Philip Elmer-Dewitt's Fortune blog, posting before the company's reversal, points out that Apple's decision wasn't an isolated exception. Apple had banned a Mad Magazine artist's iPhone app featuring caricatures of every member of Congress -- also changing its mind. And in 2008 the App Store rejected Freedom Time, a George W. Bush countdown program; Steve Jobs allegedly explained to developers it would offend half Apple's customers! A curious sensitivity, as at least one commenter observes, considering Apple's own television and Web Mac campaign lampooning the supposed dweebishness of the PC and its users.

Just another passing outbreak of self-caricature, like its rival Amazon.com's deletion of George Orwell's 1984 from the Kindle? There may be more to the issue. The very powers of content approval and disapproval for the company in its recently leaked App Store contract make it more than a passive partner. It can't get around having taken some responsibility. Apple's pockets are deepening as those of many cooperating media organizations are turning inside out, so a requirement to indemnify Apple for damages might be limited protection. (At least one medical software site is already speculating on health care apps and malpractice litigation.) Steve Jobs might be making his company a defendant of choice, and the meter starts running even in nuisance cases, such as those public figures might file -- maybe even in foreign courts where N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan may not apply.

("Insults" to heads of state are still criminal offenses in many countries. I've already blogged about a historian's image of President Obama and a once-notorious diplomatic episode from the 1930s.)

Of course Google and other open Web vendors aren't exempt from lawsuits, especially in Europe. But Google -- which has defended including offensive research results, like links to anti-Semitic sites -- at least has a consistent position: It's me algorithm wot done it. Protests and conflicts like those in China work to its advantage. The more different controversies there are, the stronger the case for the company's neutrality and role as a mere conduit of others' work. Apple's attempt to create an unpleasantness-free zone is probably a self-defeating goal.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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