Last week, I argued in the Pocket Gamer Report that Apple’s dominance in the market has led to the company behaving in imperious and unethical ways. The examples I used were the censure it directed at developers who dare to speak out about the problem of iPhone piracy, and the general opacity of the approval process.
Nobody likes a bully, I said, and this principle has been demonstrated in at least two separate incidents this week. Firstly, the hitherto off-the-record animosity towards Tim Langdell, the litigious and much-maligned owner of the copyright for the word ‘edge’ in a video game context, finally culminated in an outburst of editorial contumely; and secondly, the sequence of events surrounding the repeated rejection of dictionary app Ninjawords came to light thanks to an email interview on Daring Fireball.
The question is, has bullying taken place in either case, or are our sympathies so weighted in favour of perceived underdogs that we’re inclined to cry ‘foul!’ without properly establishing whether a foul has been committed? Maybe Apple and Langdell aren’t the bad guys: maybe we are, for decrying them so hastily.
Let’s look at Apple’s case first. Earlier this week, some very leading headlines started to appear amongst my various RSS feeds, most of them along the lines of, “Apple censors dictionary.” Very few sites used ‘Ninjawords’ in the title, choosing instead to focus on the theme rather than the specifics of the story. The omission created a general sense that it was something beyond a single app that Apple had failed to approve: it was language itself.
On the surface, Apple had acted in a ludicrous fashion, going considerably further in its sanitation efforts than any school library or bookshop, at both of which places a person too young to legally purchase pornography can pass a happy afternoon looking up words like ‘intercourse,’ ‘mammary,’ and ‘cunt.’
Apple senior Vice President Phil Schiller responded personally to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber to give Apple’s side of what had become a big and more or less scandalous story. “Apple did not censor the content in this developer’s application and Apple did not reject this developer’s application for including references to common swear words,” he said.
Schiller went on to point out that there are several dictionary apps already on the App Store that allow users to look up words like ‘fuck,’ and ‘cunt,’ which counters the argument that Apple won’t approve such apps on principle (although it’s worth noting that Ninjawords developer Matchstick Software made exactly the same point in the original Daring Fireball article to illustrate Apple’s capriciousness.)
Apple’s issue with Ninjawords wasn’t that it allowed users to look up swear words, but that it allowed them to look up particularly crude examples of ‘urban slang’ – words that aren’t available in the more conventional dictionaries already on the App Store. Apple was never against selling the app, though, and it made every effort to help Matchstick by advising the developer to hang on for a short while until the 3.0 software was available, after which parental controls would be in place and there wouldn’t be a problem.
This answered the allegation that Apple had censored Ninjawords. In fact, it was never a credible allegation. According to my own copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, to censor is to ‘examine (a book, film, etc.) and suppress unacceptable parts of it.’ Apple simply isn’t a position to do this: it can only accept or reject an app. Only the developer censors.
Apple rejected the Ninjawords for what it deemed were valid reasons and offered advice about how to get it approved unexpurgated. Matchstick then chose to censor its own app rather than wait a few weeks for an update that would allow users over the age of 17 unrestricted access to Wiktionary in all its sordid glory. Schiller himself was critical: “Wiktionary.org is an open, ever-changing resource and filtering the content does not seem reasonable or necessary.”
Of course, there are counter arguments, two of the most obvious being a) that Apple had no basis on which to reject the undisclosed urban slang and not the more conventional swear words, and b) that refusing to approve Ninjawords was tantamount to censorship.
But these don’t settle the argument. There’s a case to be made for both sides, but the vast majority of those writing about the incident in the video game blogosphere have chosen to represent only the underdog, and to condemn only Apple. IntoMobile ran the story with the headline, “Phil Schiller admits that Apple censors the App Store like China censors the internet” and used the word ‘fascism’ in the body text.
This is an extreme example, but it’s at the crowded end of the spectrum, failing as it does to criticise Matchstick’s self-interested filtering of access to Wiktionary – a damaging outcome Apple sought actively to avoid. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that Apple is actually the hero of the story. Heroes and villains belong in fairy tales; balanced journalism shouldn’t contain either.
In that spirit, let’s turn to the insufferable bully, villain, and [insert ‘urban slang’] Tim Langdell.
On second thoughts, let’s not.
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