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Apple bans Pulitzer Prize political cartoons from iPhone

Censorship goes from silly to serious

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

This week, a California political cartoonist was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Last December, Apple's App Store police barred his work from its hallowed online halls.

As reported Thursday by Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab, Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Mark Fiore submitted his cartoon app NewsToons to the App Store Police, only to have it rejected.

Fiore's sin: violation of the sacred section 3.3.14 of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which reads:

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 judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.

We'll gloss over that risible "reasonable judgement" bit and instead pose a simple question: Keeping in mind that Fiore is a political cartoonist, might that "offensive or defamatory" judgment be solely in the eyes of the beholder?

Meaning, are the App Store police censoring commentary based upon their own tastes? Well, of course they are.

After all, who might find Fiore's cartoons to be offensive? Homophobes? Drug dealers? Mexican wrestlers? The POTUS himself? Maybe so - but one thing is certain: Apple does.

Sure, we all laugh at the stupidity of fart apps (447 and counting) and pointless "Ka-Ching!" buttons and their ilk, but the App Store police's censorship of political ideas is truly worrisome. Should Apple succeed, as it clearly wishes to, in turning the iPad into a vehicle for printed matter, will the App Store bluenoses succeed in determining what large numbers of people can read?

To be sure, Apple doesn't censor pass-through apps such as those from The New York Times, the BBC, or USA Today, which exist to be containers for news and commentary produced by their parent entities. But the App Store police - as in Fiore's case - find it well within their power to shut controversy out of Apple's handhelds when it appears in standalone apps.

And if you'd like to don your favorite tinfoil hat for a moment, note that the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement doesn't explicitly state that content displayed through a pass-through app is immune from the "offensive or defamatory content" prohibition.

The spreading stink over Fiore's rejection may change Apple's mind, however. Last November, the App Store police banned an app that included a cartoon of a Nancy Pelosi bobblehead. It relented and approved the app, but only after considerable public pressure - and not a small amount of ridicule.

Perhaps the outcry over Fiore's banning will lead to a similar turnabout by Apple - after all, winning a Pulitzer Prize is no small achievement, and one that should earn Apple a fresh round of derision.

But that won't change the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement. Remember, it still allows Apple to "reject [an app] for any reason, even if Your Application meets the Documentation and Program Requirements."

To gain admission into the iTunes App Store, a political commentator shouldn't have to win a Pulitzer Prize. ®

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