Why Apple Can’t Be Trusted with the App Store

Nigella for iPad_screenThe eBook publishing price-fixing scandal raised its fugly head again this week when the US Justice Department filed documents in advance of the June 3 trial in New York.

Among those documents was a series of emails and documents in which eBook pricing strategy and tactics are discussed.

An email from late founder and CEO Steve Jobs to News Corporation’s James Murdoch got all the attention. (The email itself was harmless but parts of it printed out of context sounded vaguely conspiratorial and old-boys clubbish.)

To me, the scandal is buried in those emails and testimony records. We learned that Apple used its control over app approvals to exert pressure on companies for reasons totally unrelated to the apps.

Does this bother you? It should.

When Apple was negotiating with Random House and the companies were disagreeing about pricing, Jobs threatened the publisher’s CEO by saying they would “suffer a loss of support from Apple” if the company continued to resist Apple’s terms, according to that CEO. Two months later, the CEO said that Apple threatened to block an eBook application by Random House because they had not reached a deal. (I don’t know if that book was Nigella’s Quick Collection, pictured, but that is a Random House title.)

A subsequent email sent by Eddy Cue to Jobs said that Random House agreed to Apple’s terms in part because Cue “prevented an app from Random House from going live in the app store.”

(Ironically, I believe these emails are part of Apple’s defense to show that its relationships with publishers was contentious rather than conspiratorial.)

If court documents are portraying this accurately, it means that in 2010, at least, Apple was willing to use its control over the app store to give the company an unfair advantage in unrelated business deals.

Apple’s History of Arbitrary App Store Decisions

Some blocking of apps is more legitimate — or, at least, determined by published rules. For example, Apple banned a DUI checkpoint finding app a couple years ago. This violated a very specific section of the Apple guidelines that flat out say that DUI checkpoint apps will be rejected. Fair enough.

The controversial removal by Apple of T&C’s AppGratis from the App Store last month was also probably justifiable.

(Apple not only removed the app, they also pulled the plug on the app’s push notifications to people who had previously installed the app.)

Though critics accused Apple of stifling an alternative view to the App Store, Apple said the app violated two of its terms of service. For a fee, the company would promote a developer’s app by giving apps free or offering in-app content free. This directly violates the App Store requirements around app promotions and direct-marketing push notifications.

Still, the banning caused an international incident. France’s minister for the digital economy (why does the digital economy need a “minister”?), named Fleur Pellerin, slammed Apple in a tweet that falsely said “plenty of apps similar to AppGratis remain” in the App Store. Her involvement has also been criticized as harmful to the very “digital economy” French taxpayers are paying her to boost.

Other app removals exist in a gray area where it appears that Apple just doesn’t like the sound or intent of apps, and pulls them arbitrarily.

Apple this week removed the Bang With Friends app, which existed to enable users to proposition people they follow on Facebook to find out if they are “down to bang.”

Essentially, it works like this: You scan your Facebook friends and choose the ones you would like to “bang.” These choices remain private. But when someone on your “down to bang” list puts you on their “down to bang” list, you’re both notified of this mutually assured attraction.

As far as I can tell, the pulling of this app is arbitrary. I’m guessing Apple just doesn’t like the sound of it.

I would be surprised if Apple considered as one of its corporate missions the need to prevent people from having sex with each other, or the use of apps for people to discover that they are attracted to each other.

I suspect that the baby boomers who run Apple just find language commonly used by millennials in poor taste.

Is a generation gap a good reason to exert their control over an ecosystem?

Apple, in fact, has a long history of banning apps based on them being in poor taste.

An app called iBoobs was banned, even though there was no nudity in it. The app showed a cartoon clothed upper torso of a woman. By shaking the app, the breasts jiggled. So what’s the rule here: You can show female bodies as long as they’re not in motion?

Another banned app showed perfectly static women as Apple prefers, but as part of a strip poker game called Video Strip Poker. They never got naked in the game. Apple doesn’t have a categorical ban on bikinis or underwear. But showing a progression from clothed to underwear was something Apple just didn’t like the idea of, so it was banned.

Another app called I Am Rich was banned by Apple. The app did almost nothing and cost $1,000. The whole point was that the high cost of the app itself was supposed to be a status symbol.

Why Apple Needs Principles and Rules Governing the App Store

Some say Apple’s 30% cut is an outrageously high percentage for apps and content.

Others, such as the Justice Department and the actual eBooks monopoly, Amazon, say Apple’s agency model for books is problematic.

I say both of these charges are baloney. Apple distributes free apps for free and charges what the market will bear for distributing paid apps. The agency model is one in which publishers set the prices and everybody gets paid (including the authors with enough money for the editors, the designers and, yes, the distributor). And when people get paid, books are better. In any event, Apple’s agency model is better than Amazon’s wholesale model, which lets Amazon sell below cost to drive competitors out of the market and take pricing control away from authors and publishers.

I also don’t mind Apple’s strict, somewhat puritanical rules for banning certain apps, because at least they’re published rules which app and content creators can consider in advance before exhausting their resources.

What we should all be bothered by, however, are arbitrary, self-serving abuses of the power Apple wields to pick and choose which apps it likes or doesn’t like or — worst of all — to use its control of the App Store to force business partners to capitulate in negotiations.

If Apple wants to be a standard, global agent for content, we need to trust them. And for us to trust them, they’ve got to earn our trust by creating a rule-governed, level playing field.

In other words, the use of Apple’s platform for content distribution should be a partnership where both parties are bound by agreed-upon rules, not a content dictatorship that functions according to Apple’s whim.

When every other company, such as Google, Facebook or Microsoft publishes policies and user agreements and then violates them, everybody is outraged. So where’s the outrage about Apple’s flagrant and arbitrary control of the App Store?

I think it’s time for Tim Cook to set this right. Yes, the company should make rules for content distribution on its iTunes and iBooks networks.

But just as we content creators follow those rules, so should Apple.

  • ElVox

    Uhm…so, Apple shouldn’t be able to control what and how things go into the app store that they maintain and created? uhm…if you don’t like it, jailbreak and stop using the apple app store.

  • Adrayven

    Uhm…so, Apple shouldn’t be able to control what and how things go into the app store that they maintain and created? uhm…if you don’t like it, jailbreak and stop using the apple app store.

    Agreed ElVox… This is no different from a Target or Best Buy or Barns N’ Noble.. Stores (virtual or brick’n mortar) have always had the right to decide what products they carry.

    How is this any different from Apple’s App Store? If they choose to not allow adult books in iBooks.. thats their choice.. if they decide PG and educational only, again, their choice… Same with the App store..

    It’s their store front, they get to portray themselves by the products,partners, and brands they choose and the format they pick..

    BWF application is a perfect example.. IF you came along and tried to force a local grocery store to carry an adult magazine or other adult/related product, you’d be laughed to the curb. By both the owners AND the law..

    Honestly.. did you even think this article out? Seems like a Apple bash.. whats your agenda?

    If someone doesn’t like the products, apps, or books available, they voice that by buying and using other stores or poducts.. in this case.. don’t like Apple.. go Android or Blackberry.. Thats the wonderful world of consumerism.. get used to it. :p

    Seriously.. Brick N’ Mortar stores have negotiated this way for decades.. brands have had more pull than others.. Some have had to beg and borrow to get stores to carry them.. I’m seriously wondering at your naiveté on the subject and how you can even be surprised?

    I think you’re confused between human rights and consumerism.. With consumerism, money talks.. Apple and it’s team can choose that path as they see fit.

  • lowtolerance

    Apple has every right to curate the products that they sell by any criteria they wish. The creators of apps like the asinine “iBoobs” are no more entitled to have their product sold and distributed by Apple in their app store than the BangBus guys are entitled to sell their products on the shelves of Walmart. The notion that Apple is somehow untrustworthy for applying a modicum of discretion and propriety in the moderation of a store with a global reach that spans nearly all ages is beyond fallacious, it’s flatly stupid — if anything, it shows that they are a company that their general audience can trust.

  • bluefalcon75

    Mike Elgan, misinformed, alarmist, ignorant again.

    How is he able to continue to contribute to any site based upon his ridiculous record?

  • Mike

    Mike Elgan, misinformed, alarmist, ignorant again.

    If I said something you disagree with, I imagine you would be able to tell me what and why. I see no evidence that you even read the post.

  • Mike

    The creators of apps like the asinine “iBoobs” are no more entitled to have their product sold and distributed by Apple in their app store than the BangBus guys are entitled to sell their products on the shelves of Walmart.

    You refer to my aside, but don’t mention my main point. Apple apparently withheld an app approval in order to force a business partner into accepting Apple’s terms in a negotiation.

    I’m asking you directly: Do you believe that’s an ethical use of their control of the App Store? Yes or no?

  • MrsCleaver

    “Why Apple Can’t Be Trusted with the App Store”

    Oh man, what is your f’ing problem? What a bash at Apple! Dude, without Apple, without Macintosh, without the vision of Steve Jobs and his teams (warts and all), there would BE no Cult of Mac to write you a check for your smut “reporting.” This is smut reporting, and it belongs in the trash. You’re better suited to the National Enquirer.

  • daov2a

    Excellent article. Well researched, thought out and directly questions the authority of Apple on a very Apple related site. I applaud the author as doing that is brave. By far one of of the best posts I have seen on CoM.

    Anyone stating otherwise is too deep in the Apple mindset. I would say the only additions would be regarding Cydia and how many apps are flourishing there that flout Apple rules directly. It is clear that Apple abuses their power and are arrogant. It is only a matter of time and an increare in market share that causes monopoly concerns regarding built in Apple apps and the inability to alter the defaults in the iOS ecosystem. My .02.

    Again, great post and great writing. I had almost lost hopein CoM as they had begun to be too deep in Apple’s “our shite doesn’t stink” belief. Good job Mike!

  • technochick

    No we learned nothing. You are pulling he same stunts as the DOJ, selectively providing facts and quotes to suit the statements you want to make. You’ve decided Apple is guilty with no doubts and I suspect if they are found innocent you’ll be here spreading your typical biased, baseless FUD claiming Apple bribed someone or some such.

    It’s becoming more and more clear that you lack any sense of journalistic integrity and you basically hate Apple so please Dear Mike go find another job.

  • technochick

    Apple apparently withheld an app approval in order to force a business partner into accepting Apple’s terms in a negotiation.

    APPARENTLY being a very key word. It is not yet a proven fact that such a situation or email took place or that it is as presented here. And yet they are being called out as guilty over rumor. Is that appropriate or ethical? Not really.

  • technochick

    Mike Elgan, misinformed, alarmist, ignorant again.

    How is he able to continue to contribute to any site based upon his ridiculous record?

    Because this a blog not a newspaper so they feel no need to show any integrity and therefore post any BS for page hits.

  • robogobo

    Excellent article. Well researched, thought out and directly questions the authority of Apple on a very Apple related site. I applaud the author as doing that is brave. By far one of of the best posts I have seen on CoM.

    Anyone stating otherwise is too deep in the Apple mindset. I would say the only additions would be regarding Cydia and how many apps are flourishing there that flout Apple rules directly. It is clear that Apple abuses their power and are arrogant. It is only a matter of time and an increare in market share that causes monopoly concerns regarding built in Apple apps and the inability to alter the defaults in the iOS ecosystem. My .02.

    Again, great post and great writing. I had almost lost hopein CoM as they had begun to be too deep in Apple’s “our shite doesn’t stink” belief. Good job Mike!

    Anyone stating otherwise is too interested in facts. It’s not brave to publish conclusions based on rumor or speculation. Nor is arbitrary correlation “well researched.” Iboobs? Really?

  • Paullloydjohnson

    Wow, saw the title, knew this was more Mike Elgan BS. Not reading it, simple as. Why bother readding another unsubstantiated opinion piece? No thanks.

  • daov2a
    Excellent article. Well researched, thought out and directly questions the authority of Apple on a very Apple related site. I applaud the author as doing that is brave. By far one of of the best posts I have seen on CoM.

    Anyone stating otherwise is too deep in the Apple mindset. I would say the only additions would be regarding Cydia and how many apps are flourishing there that flout Apple rules directly. It is clear that Apple abuses their power and are arrogant. It is only a matter of time and an increare in market share that causes monopoly concerns regarding built in Apple apps and the inability to alter the defaults in the iOS ecosystem. My .02.

    Again, great post and great writing. I had almost lost hopein CoM as they had begun to be too deep in Apple’s “our shite doesn’t stink” belief. Good job Mike!

    Anyone stating otherwise is too interested in facts. It’s not brave to publish conclusions based on rumor or speculation. Nor is arbitrary correlation “well researched.” Iboobs? Really?

    Yeah, it’s difficult to digest a different viewpoint.

  • lowtolerance

    You refer to my aside, but don’t mention my main point. Apple apparently withheld an app approval in order to force a business partner into accepting Apple’s terms in a negotiation.

    I’m asking you directly: Do you believe that’s an ethical use of their control of the App Store? Yes or no?

    Were you or were you not using that aside to back up your main argument? And I’m not going to comment on sheer speculation, because unlike you, I pride myself on having the integrity not to misrepresent unbacked claims as fact.

    Don’t get all up in arms just because I’m pointing out some of the flawgic in yet another of your bullshit click-whoring articles. And you have the audacity to think you can preach about ethics and be heard?

  • Mach Concorde

    The minute I saw the title, I knew it was mike elgan, and skimmed the tiny so called article for the sentence where he goes against his own title …… mike, your game is out… including your credibility. Shame on you

  • MacAdvisor

    I am somewhat surprised some developer has sued Apple for banning his app from the App Store under Pruneyard v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74 (1980) case. Typically, the First Amendment only protects speakers from abuse by government actors, thus a private company, such as a shopping mall, is free to regulate speech based on content, something the government may not do. However, the California constitution has significantly broader free speech protections, ones that extend the protection into public, but privately, owned spaces, such as shopping malls. Thus, if a shopping mall allows the Girl Scouts to promote themselves in the mall, they must also allow the American Nazis party to do so to.

    I think the App Store is one of these privately-owned public spaces. Apple can control things such as technical requirements, but not viewpoint. Thus, if it allows an app that displays pictures of national parks, it has to allow one that shows pictures of boobies. I think several of the banned apps would be returned under this rule.

  • Mike

    The structure of the article goes like this:

    1. We learned this week that Apple did something unethical relating to abuse of App Store approvals.

    2. In fact, Apple has a history of arbitrary App Store decisions (list of colorful and entertaining app store decisions).

    A critic pulls out one item from #2 without mentioning the main point. I’m trying to get to the bottom of why nobody wants to address item #1.

  • Mike

    The minute I saw the title, I knew it was mike elgan, and skimmed the tiny so called article for the sentence where he goes against his own title …… mike, your game is out… including your credibility. Shame on you

    I’m not really clear about what you’re talking about, but let me ask you: How do you feel about Apple withholding an app to force compromise in a business negotiation?

  • Mike
    By the way, you’re dodging my simple and direct question. Why?

  • Mike

    Technochick: If I was giving a bad argument, then you should be able to identify what’s bad about it. The reason you can’t do that is that Apple is guilty here of unethical business practices and you know it. And if that’s not right, let’s hear your defense of Apple.

About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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