Apple, Summoning Its Mighty App-Squashing Powers, Spikes Drone Tracker

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A new app-store rejection should remind us that Apple's gatekeeping may not be good for journalism.

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Danger Room reports that an app that reports drone strikes to your phone has been rejected from Apple's store for various reasons that seem to boil down to this one: Apple doesn't like it. The student-designed app simply presents existing media accounts of strikes in our open-secret war. It plots them on a map and can push those updates to you. That's it. And yet Apple ultimately found it "objectionable and crude," after issuing a series of rejections with other rationales. 

Apple controls a large chunk of the smartphone market and as part of their end-to-end service, they filter every app that developers would like to present on the iPhone. The company's gatekeeping for the app store helps tamp down the number of crappy apps, but it has long been a theoretical restriction on the free flow of information. 

The company says it's just trying to keep "objectionable" apps off the iPhone, but what does that word mean to Apple's corporate mind? 

Journalists, specifically, seemed at risk of running afoul of the Apple authorities.

"The most important issue is whether news organizations should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions like the ones Apple has been making about content in all kinds of ways," Dan Gillmor asked back in 2010. "I say they should think hard about it, and answer either in the negative or insist on iron-clad contracts with Apple that prohibit the hardware company from any kind of interference with the journalism, ever."

Brian Chen at Wired's Gadget Lab warned Apple could end up in charge of the news and issued a call for transparency in the way the app store handled journalistic apps.

"Working with Apple's current opaque policy, we're left to trust that Apple will do the right thing," Chen wrote. "And time and time again, Apple's App Store reviewers have been proven fallible, as recently shown by the rejection of Mark Fiore's Pulitzer-winning cartoon. Apple rejected the toon because it 'ridicules public figures,' and after coming under fire in the press, the company approved the app. But in reversing its decision, Apple still did not make its content policy clear."

But Apple did not really make the policy clear and media organizations continued to flock to the app store and the issue largely went to the backburner. But this problem has not gone away. Two big differences between now and 2010, though, are 1) Android has become a legitimate competitor to Apple's iOS and 2) mobile-optimized HTML5 sites can deliver much of the functionality that apps can. Android is known for much looser app approval policies and anyone can build an HTML5 site on the open web, so we've got more options than we once did. 

But that's not going to change Apple's behavior until or unless their customers begin to drop the app store for more open waters.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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