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Apple’s Policy on Satire: 16 Apps Rejected for “Ridiculing Public Figures”

Mark Fiore can win a Pulitzer Prize for political cartoons, but he can’t get his iPhone app into the App Store because it “ridicules public figures.”

Fiore’s award brought new attention to Apple’s rejection. The press has covered the story fairly extensively and a people have been asking if Apple’s policy conflicts with journalism and editorial content.

John Gruber wrote a great piece about the app rejection in which he said, “If it is Apple’s policy not to allow any political satire in the App Store, that’s terrible.”

Great question: Is it Apple’s policy?

Steve Jobs wrote one of his famous short emails about Fiore’s app rejection saying, “This was a mistake that’s being fixed.”

Lest Steve’s comments confuse you, let me clear it up. This has been Apple’s policy since the App Store launched. I wrote about how this “policy essentially bans any editorial cartoons” last year.

Still don’t believe me? Here are 16 applications that have been rejected using the phrase “content that ridicules public figures” going back to September 2008.

16 17 Apps Rejected for “Ridiculing Public Figures”

Rejected Accepted Notes
iHeckle 17 Apr 2010 Humor app. Doesn’t actually insult public figures, but still rejected.
NewsToons 21 Dec 2009 Apple asks Fiore to resubmit after he wins Pulitzer Prize.
iBop Image Packs Unknown 17 Dec 2009 Images rejected were made free for download outside App Store.
Great Obamo Mind Reader App 25 Nov 2009 Developers say Michelle and Barack have actually seen the app and think it is funny.
OutOfOffice! 15 Nov 2009
VernerLegal 14 Nov 2009 Nov 2009
Bobble Red 09 Nov 2009 14 Nov 2009 “You have to wonder how much of the decision was based on the press covered and image hit Apple had taken…”
Posh needs Nosh 30 Oct 2009
You Lie 9 Oct 2009 6 Nov 2009 Rejected for saying, “You Lie, Mr. President.” Developers removed “Mr. President.”
Someecards 07 Oct 2009 29 Oct 2009 Asks “if it’s Apple policy to reject apps that contain any jokes about public figures”
BidensTeeth 6 Jun 2009 Was based on a very funny website
Start Mobile Wallpaper Gallery 19 May 2009 21 Aug 2009 Rejected because of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama HOPE image.
MiniPops 9 May 2009 Nov 2009
Obama Trampoline 07 Feb 2009
My Shoe 05 Feb 2009
Bobblicious 28 Oct 2008 26 Nov 2008 Removed controversial content to get approved.
Freedom Time 21 Sep 2008 A cartoon character of George Bush on a clock counting down toward inauguration.

Steve Jobs on Freedom Time

Still have doubts about whether or not Apple can have a standing policy that rejects satire—the essence of political commentary? Let’s look at what Steve Jobs said about Freedom Time.

“Even though my personal political leanings are democratic, I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers.  What’s the point?”

Good political commentary and satire will by its very nature offend many.

How to Get Your Satire App Accepted

What can we learn from the apps that were rejected and then later approved? There are two main ways to get your app accepted:

  • Remove the satire and appease Apple.
  • Get enough press coverage to pressure Apple to change it’s ruling.

Mark Fiore in the New York Times sums up the situation well.

“Sure, mine might get approved, but what about someone who hasn’t won a Pulitzer and who is maybe making a better political app than mine?” he asked. “Do you need some media frenzy to get an app approved that has political material?


Update: Added iHeckle to rejected app list.

Freedom Time: Google Voice Letter to the FCC, iPhone App Store & Mobile Gatekeepers

Friday is the day to release news you want people to forget. No surprise then that Friday was when Google released the unredacted version of its letter to the FCC about Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application.

In case you missed it, the FCC sent letters to Apple, Google, and AT&T asking them about Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice for iPhone application and what role each company played.

Apple and AT&T released the full content of their responses to the FCC. Google asked for portions of its response to be redacted. However, a Freedom of Information Act request prompted Google to divulge the full content of their response.

And yet despite this latest revelation, the he said, she said nature of the follow ups, and word that Google may even have a screenshot proving that Apple is lying, Google Voice is nowhere near the most important App Store rejection.

That distinction belongs to Freedom Time.

Why Freedom Time Matters More than Google Voice

Freedom Application ScreenshotLike many iPhone applications, Freedom Time was a frivolous application. The application displayed a cartoon character of George Bush with arms like a Mickey Mouse watch. But instead of telling time, the application counted down the days until Inauguration Day.

Freedom Time wasn’t one of the more high-profile iPhone App Store rejections. Unlike Google Voice, people barely noticed when the application was rejected.

What is important is the reason why Freedom Time was rejected. Apple’s response to the developer was:

Upon review of your application, Freedom Time cannot be posted to the App Store because it contains content that does not comply with Community Standards. Usage of such materials, as outlined in the iPhone SDK Agreement section 3.3.12, is prohibited:

“Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

Defaming, demeaning, or attacking political figures is not considered appropriate content for the App Store.

Can you imagine political discourse of any significance that doesn’t include demeaning or attacking political figures? Like it or not, that’s part of the exchange of ideas that form a democracy.

This policy essentially bans any editorial cartoons—cartoons that have been part of America’s history since its inception.

The idea that political discourse might be rejected from the App Store as a matter of policy surely must be a mistake, right?

Think Different? What’s the Point?

Unfortunately, it isn’t a mistake. The developer of Freedom Time emailed Steve Jobs, and he actually got a reply. Steve wrote:

Even though my personal political leanings are democratic, I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers. What’s the point?


I’ve often wondered what the Steve Jobs who attended Reed College during the early days of the Watergate scandal would think of that quote.

Steve Jobs, George Bush, Richard Nixon, and Scott Ritter

These four people—two that I admire and two that broke our trust—have become linked in my mind because of the Freedom Time rejection.

Freedom of speech is easy to defend when the speech is popular, but the real test comes when you have to defend unpopular speech or things that you don’t agree with.

In Fall 2008, George Bush had the worst approval ratings since Nixon. At a time in which we had one of the most unpopular Presidents in American history, Apple didn’t have the courage to approve a simple, stupid application like Freedom Time.

What is the likelihood that Apple would approve a truly controversial and unpopular application during a time when popular opinion makes it difficult to stand up for what’s right?

I find myself wondering what would have happened if former marine and U.N. Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter had tried to release an application in 2002 talking about how there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

When Ritter did speak up in 2002 and told the world that he had been in Iraq and that there were no weapons of mass destruction, popular opinion was so high in favor of Bush policies that despite being known as a patriot, conservative, and a hawk, Ritter was called a traitor by some.

What if the only means Scott Ritter had to share what he knew with the rest of the world had been through an App Store?

Flickr Censorship Pales in Comparison

Censored Obama imageRecently Flickr received a lot of scrutiny and pressure because of perceived censorship of a political image. The image showed a modified version of Obama on the cover of Time Magazine where Obama was made to look like the Joker from the most recent Batman movie.

Yahoo, the parent company for Flickr, later explained that they removed the image from Flickr because they had received a copyright infringement claim.

I don’t care to debate the Flickr censorship case. Instead, I want to ask simply why Flickr got a lot of grief for censoring a single image that they say they removed because of a copyright claim, but Apple has thus far escaped scrutiny for a standing policy that rejects any applications that attack political figures.

The image that Flickr removed would have never made it through the iPhone app review process in the first place.

The Mobile Proposition: Trade Liberty for Security

Apple has good reasons for why it has an App Store review process. It told the FCC that:

We created an approval process that reviews every application submitted to Apple for the App Store in order to protect consumer privacy, safeguard children from inappropriate content, and avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone.

This is a very similar argument that carriers and handset manufacturers have been making for years now. The argument is that mobile phones contain so much personal, sensitive information that applications need to be vetted to ensure that consumers are protected.

This is the same argument that Ben Franklin famously warned us about when he said:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

And despite the fact that we would not accept similar arguments from our government, we seem willing to give up our freedoms to mobile companies for the sake of our own security.

It’s Not About Apple. It’s About Gatekeepers

While I’ve spent most of my time focusing on Apple, please don’t mistake this as a tirade against Apple. Apple just happens to be leading the way in this area of mobile as well.

The reality is that if mobile is going to live up to its promise, we need a future without gatekeepers.

It isn’t hard to conceive of a future where more people have smartphones than have PCs. In some countries, people get more news from their mobile phones than they do from their desktop computers.

Before we get to the point where mobile phones have become the primary way that people get their news and information, we need to ensure that we have the freedom to publish what we want without restrictions.

For these reasons, I’m encouraged by the work of organizations like the Open Mobile Consortium. They are tackling the difficult work of providing truly open mobile solutions that allow people in repressive regimes to communicate freely.

The Moral Imperative of the Mobile Web

In addition to the Open Mobile Consortium, we need to make sure that there are alternatives to app stores and their gatekeepers. The best alternative is web technology.

This is why I’ve gone from thinking about mobile web technology as a smart business decision for some applications to thinking of it as a moral imperative.

Even if you are an Objective-C programmer who has had a lot of success on the iPhone App Store, it is in your best interest that the mobile web develop into a viable alternative to app stores. It is in society’s best interest.

To get to that point, we need to solve the short-coming of the mobile web. We need the technology to stabilize. We need real browsers on all phones. And we need a reliable and easy way to accept payment for our mobile web applications and services.

I cannot state this strongly enough: we need an open and free mobile web to be a viable alternative to the mobile gatekeepers to ensure that we have the freedom to say what must be said and the ability to have our voices heard by others.

Why Apple’s Failure with iPhone Web Applications Doesn’t Matter

Here is the story many people would like you to believe:

Apple told developers that the only way to build applications for the iPhone was to use web technology. Developers didn’t go for it so Apple eventually caved and created the native iPhone SDK.

Ergo, attempts like those by Google to make mobile web applications the centerpiece of a mobile strategy are doomed to fail.

Wrong! Apple’s failure with iPhone web applications does not matter when it comes to the future of mobile web applications.

Here’s why Apple’s experiment wasn’t a good test:

  • Apple’s web-only development wasn’t mobile — Not in any way. There was no access to geolocation, accelerometer, offline mode, or the camera. The only thing mobile was the fact you were constrained to a small screen.
  • Apple’s own apps weren’t built using web technology — “Do as we say not as we do” didn’t go over well with developers. If you’re going to make the argument, you need to lead by example like Palm has.
  • The Original iPhone was Slow — People have forgotten that the original iPhone only ran on the edge network. The iPhone OS has had two major releases that included performance optimizations. Javascript performance in the iPhone OS 3.0 is 3 times faster on the same hardware. And “iPhone 3GS Javascript performance blows away rivals and approaches MacBook speed.”
  • HTML 5 Capabilities were not available — In the time since Apple’s experiment, browsers have started to expose things like offline support and geolocation that are essential for mobile.

There are good arguments to be made for why mobile web applications may not succeed. I may not agree with them, but I can acknowledge their logic. And for a whole host of immersive applications like games, I can readily acknowledge that mobile web applications will likely never make sense.

But to use Apple’s flirtation with mobile web applications as the foundation for an argument that mobile web applications will never take off is akin to looking at the success of web browsers on WAP phones and arguing that iPhone users will never use their browser.