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Apple denies censoring App Store swear words

We censored "urban slang"

Slipping completely out of character, Apple has responded to a firestorm of complaints over its seemingly random efforts to police content offered on its App Store.

Apple insists it didn't reject a dictionary app for including common swear words. It rejected the app for "providing access" to offensive "urban slang."

Yesterday, the web was filled with anti-Apple invective over Cupertino's apparent censorship of an iPhone-app dictionary because it contained "objectionable" words. And today, in remarkable fashion, Apple SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller broke the company's code of silence to give his side of the controversy.

The story so far: On Tuesday, veteran pundit John Gruber posted an account on his blog, Daring Fireball, detailing the sad and sordid saga of how a two-person development shop, Matchstick Software, had been forced by Apple to remove vulgar words from its iPhone app, Ninjawords Dictionary (App Store link).

The blogosphere immediately went into high dudgeon mode, with over 80 articles published excoriating Apple, including hotly-headlined items from sources such as PC World ("Apple Screws Up Again, Censors iPhone Dictionary App"), TechRadar UK ("Apple censors App Store dictionary, loses its mind"), Good Morning Silicon Valley ("See if they left the definition of 'asinine' in there"), and theAppleBlog ("Oh For Pete's Sake Apple, Will You Pull Your Head Out?").

When The Reg contacted Phil Crosby, co-developer of Ninjawords along with David Renie, he confirmed the Daring Fireball account - but then quickly followed up with an email letting us know that "there may be more clarification coming later tonight or tomorrow, possibly from Apple."

Sure enough, Daring Fireball soon published a lengthy update to its original story, which included what Gruber characterized as "a thoughtful email" from none other than Steve Jobs keynote stand-in Phil Schiller.

As Schiller told Gruber, "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. You accused Apple of both in your story and the fact is that we did neither."

But Crosby told Gruber - and confirmed to The Reg - that when dealing with the App Store police, "We were rejected for objectionable content. They provided screenshots of the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ showing up in our dictionary’s search results."

And 'shit' and 'fuck' are just about as common as swear words get, which contradicts Schiller's assertion.

Schiller then goes on to say that Apple rejected the app for providing access "to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable." As evidence, he points to Ninjawords' source dictionary, the web-based Wiktionary.org, where "a quick search ... easily turns up a number of offensive 'urban slang' terms."

So Schiller says Apple didn't censor the content in the application. And then he says it did.

His justification for this contradiction is that when Matchstick first submitted Ninjawords to the App Store, the parental-controls rating system initiated along with iPhone Software 3.0 didn't exist, so Apple wouldn't let it in the store unless it removed words that the App Store guardians found objectionable.

As Matchstick developer Crosby told Gruber Wednesday night, "17+ ratings were not available when we launched, which means at that time, it was simply not possible for our dictionary to be on the App Store without being censored. Given the options of censoring or sitting on the side lines while our competitors ate our lunch, we chose to launch."

There's more than enough ambiguity to go around in Schiller's lengthy argument and Gruber's even more-lengthy exegesis of it. Take Schiller's reference to vulgar terms in Wiktionary.org. You may think Apple was right to turn its nose up at Wiktionary's "urban slang," but Ninjawords doesn't link to that dictionary in real time. Rather, it compiles data from it, compresses it, and inserts it directly into the app - a process that could easily alleviate Schiller's concern that "Wiktionary.org is an open, ever-changing resource and filtering the content does not seem reasonable or necessary."

But quibbling aside, Crosby wants to make nice, telling The Reg on Thursday morning that "It's relieving to see Phil Schiller look into this directly and offer reasonable comments in Apple's defense. It means there is a human face behind that wall of rejection, and that Apple will listen to the developer community and cares about improving the review process."

It would be bunnies 'n' butterflies nicey-nice to say that the dispute has been resolved, hands have been duly shaken, and all is well in Appville. But that's not the case.

There remains the fact that it took the intercession of an Apple senior vice president to cut through the Gordian grisliness of the App Store submission/rejection process and offer an even close-to-comprehensible explanation for the gauntlet Crosby and his partner Renie were forced to run during their application-approval ordeal.

"We waited in silence for hopeless weeks at a time and were rejected three times by Apple," Crosby told us on Wednesday. "It felt like we were being mocked."

But even those unsympathetic to developers battered about by the slings and arrows of outrageous App Store guardians must admit that there's something seriously wrong with the entire approval process - namely consistency.

As Gruber points out, some potty-mouthed dictionaries in the App Store are rated 4+ while others bear the 17+ rating. The only reasons for such discrepancies would be that there's either disagreement among the App Store police over what makes an app "offensive" or there are inconsistencies in how closely an app's developer-suggested rating is checked for accuracy before the app is approved.

Both of those inconsistency-inducing problems are management-related. Someone in Apple management isn't keeping close enough tabs on the App Store's application-approval gendarmes - watching the watchers, as it were.

And it's the developers who are paying the price in wasted time, frustration, and lost sales.

Schiller's missive to Gruber ends with him saying that "if we err we intend to learn and quickly improve."

Easy to say. Hard to do. And time to do it. ®

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