Apple’s App Store and the future of democratic culture online

NOT available on the App Store

NOT available on the App Store

I’ve been sitting on this blog for a while but EFF’s excellent post on Apple’s “crystal prisons” finally made me get off my butt and publish it. It’s based on a more detailed analysis I did for a paper that I can provide upon request.

Should users of Apple’s iOS devices have access to an app that condemns marriage equality? How about an app that lets users create their own joke drivers licenses? Or an app that gives them access to content published by WikiLeaks, or another that advocates for a single-payer health care system in America?

Regardless of one’s opinion of the appropriateness, usefulness or political views represented in these apps, the fact is that whether they are available to iOS users is at the moment up to Apple and Apple alone—and that’s precisely the problem.

Since launching the revolutionary iPhone in the summer of 2007, Apple Inc. has become one of the leading manufacturers of mobile communication devices in the world, having sold more than 314 million iOS-based devices (including the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad) to date. Apple’s dominant position in this market includes its App Store, which as of this writing boasts more than 585,000 apps and has surpassed 25 billion downloads. Apple’s iOS ecosystem has become a critical entry points unto the Internet, which is one of the most important platforms for political action and personal expression available today.

Unlike the Internet, however, the App Store is a relatively closed ecosystem. To gain access to the App Store, developers must have their apps approved by Apple. The company’s app review and approval policies have been criticized for being opaque and arbitrary, and have resulted in the rejection of both explicitly and implicitly political apps—including the apps listed at the top of this blog, as well as many others.

Some examples:

  • NetToons gave users access to Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s animated cartoons. It was rejected at first but later approved after the rejection was publicized online.
  • The Manhattan Declaration urged individuals to sign a petition condemning same-sex marriage. It was originally approved by Apple, but was then pulled after an online petition garnered just over 7,000 signatures.
  • ThirdIntifada encouraged followers to share opinions and organize protests against Israel. It was removed from the app store at the urging of the Israeli government for allegedly encouraging violence against Israel.

These examples show that Apple’s app approval and rejection policies are fickle and arbitrary—a classic example of how private industry policies can have a significant impact on network governance (DeNardis, 2012). Apple’s willingness to allow apps to live on its store seem exceedingly vulnerable to outside pressures from the public or, perhaps most troubling, government officials.

The consequences of this highly unreliable approval and rejection process for freedom of expression and political action within the iOS ecosystem, and more generally on the Internet, are profound. Developers who wish to express themselves in either explicitly or implicitly political terms can never be sure whether their apps will be approved even if they comply with Apple’s technical guidelines—and if they are approved, whether they will stay available on the app store. This not only impacts developers’ ability to express themselves but their bottom lines as well.

Conversely, end users are consistently deprived of content that they might find interesting, compelling or stimulating in some way, as well of opportunities to take political action or express themselves in myriad ways through apps. In short, Apple’s app store policies interfere with what Jack Balkin (2004) calls a “democratic culture,” one in which “ordinary people can participate, both collectively and individually, in the creation and elaboration of cultural meanings that constitute them as individuals.”

The iOS ecosystem has become large enough and pervasive enough that Apple’s policies have a substantial effect on freedom of expression online. It is therefore perhaps time that we strongly consider applying the principles of net neutrality to the iOS ecosystem. In other words, “app neutrality” should govern the iOS app approval and rejection process in order to ensure that freedom of expression within the ecosystem, as well as the larger online ecosystem, is not only protected but also nurtured.

Just as we would not look kindly on a regime that arbitrarily rejects—or approves, then rejects—websites because of their political content, we should not look kindly on a regime that does precisely this on the mobile sphere. As the market for mobile devices and services continues to grow at a vertiginous pace, an expanded conception of “app neutrality” that includes app non-discrimination within mobile app stores should become an increasingly important part of the network neutrality debate.


Read more:

Balkin, J. M. (2004). Digital speech and democratic culture: a theory of freedom of expression for the information society. New York University Law Review, 79(1), 1. [.pdf]

DeNardis, L. (2012). Hidden Levers of Internet Control: An Infrastructure-Based Theory of Internet Governance. Journal of Information, Communication, and Society, 15(3). [abstract]

Luis Hestres

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