The New Freedom: Do What You're Told

Christopher Lewicki
Much fanfare accompanied Apple’s publication of revised app store guidelines last month. Many tech industry blogs proclaimed a win for “openness.”

All Things Digital even went so far as to be “[e]ncouraged to see Apple lifting its restrictions on its licensing terms, giving developers the freedom to choose ... .” From these accolades, the casual reader naturally concludes a revolution sweeping across Cupertino, freeing developers from the ukases of a black turtleneck. Alas, those proclaiming a new era have fallen pray to a cultish Stockholm syndrome. The new “freedom” at the iThing AppStore —and in several other corners of the web — is nothing more than the freedom to “do as you’re told.”

Before I swing the bat, however, I should comment that I’m not an unreasoning Apple hater — this very article is being written on an Apple computer. Furthermore, Apple maintains one of the most innovative industrial design divisions in the world, and routinely leads the marketplace in aesthetics and consumer lust. It’s a shame then that they’re software policies remain so persistently ... well, medieval.

Apple’s nearly complete ban on adult content persists as the most discussed facet of the iThing AppStore policy. Such content, in their estimation, ranges from double entendre which Chaucer would have found timid to the darkest recess of Rule 34. As with the Apple store, they certainly have a right to restrict its content, but doing so makes them hypocrites and fools. On the one hand, Apple has chosen to curtail the freedom of only one group — those who (claim) to hate titillation. Yet other groups, like the centuries old Flat Earth Society, which promotes the view that the Earth is flat, and vehemently objects to round depictions of it, remain ignored and Apple frequently approves apps heretical to round earthers. On the other hand, the iPhone ships with a web browser with which one can access all kinds of round content; content mammary in nature.

While Apple’s decisions remain controversial, perhaps more controversial was the complete lack of actual guidelines (much less rules!) as to what constituted acceptable content. Society depends upon the rule of law. Apple, in contrast, engaged in a purely tyrannical exercise of power. An unseen bureaucrat had unlimited power to bless an app into the halcyon categories of the app store, or curse it to the everlasting purgatory of jailbroken phones. And even such purgatory is a violation of Apple’s terms — if they reject an app, the developer is in violation when they publish the app in un-Apple channels.

The supposed revelation of Apple’s new guidelines is that they provide a consistent basis for application review and acceptance, as well as loosening some of the previous restrictions on programming languages. From what information is available, it seems like these new rules do allow slight liberty by allowing developers to write code in higher level languages before compiling their code to the iThings. Alas, simply compiling from a higher language is like being told you can think whatever you want, you just can’t say it. The real freedom would be the allowance of “meta-languages” such as Adobe’s Flash technology, allowing the creation of truly high level applications with the iThings as just one facet.

Unfortunately, the following observations are based on third party reporting of the content of the new AppStore content guidelines. At the time of writing, an official copy of the new content guidelines themselves are only available after agreeing to a document which requires agreement that one won’t discuss anything, including the agreement, without prior permission from Apple. The first rule of Fight Club really is “Don’t talk about Fight Club.”

But at least these new rules, once disseminated, should provide for a fair, consistent basis for apps to enter the store, right? Well, possibly, but probably not. Apple proudly embraces that most insidious phrase “I’ll know it when I see it,” a phrase whose vagaries have plagued the adult industry for decades.

Specifically, “We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Because that’s worked so well as a legal doctrine, Apple’s adopting it as a corporate doctrine.

It’s tempting to think that Apple’s a progressive place, so maybe such a standard won’t be so onerous if it’s applied in an evenhanded manner. Think again. The content guidelines specifically state that “We don’t need any more fart apps.” While declaring a moratorium on the mildly scatological, Apple hired Phillip Shoemaker as director of application technology.

His company, Gray Noodle, makes such high-brow apps as the selfdescriptive Animal Farts; Blue Flame, which lets you simulate lighting farts on fire; and iWiz, whose function is best left imagined other than to say that it deals with farts and other bodily functions.

At first blush such a hiring seems propitious for those who think whoopee cushions are an appropriate bridal gift. Alas, there is some rather unfortunate timing to this new hire.

As reported by Engadget, “Shoemaker tweeted that he had his new employee orientation on March 9, 2009 ... Gray Noodle was still publishing apps a month later. What does this mean, exactly? We’re not sure ... but we figured we’d throw it out there nonetheless.”

Like Engadget, our lawyers are busy enough as it is, so that coincidence shall have to speak for itself.

While all of these objections are valid, Apple ultimately has the right to restrict the content that it publishes in its app store. At least these guidelines do allow developers some level of pre-knowledge before spending the time to develop and submit apps to Apple. However, even a rejected app poses a grave risk to the developer. As a part of the app approval process, developers must submit any information requested by Apple. Several sections later in the agreement, it is specifically noted that, “Apple may also be developing its own similar or competing applications and products or may decide to do so in the future. ... [Apple] expressly disclaims, any confidentiality obligations or use restrictions, ... including information about your application ... . Any physical materials you submit to Apple will become Apple property and Apple will have no obligation to return those materials to you or to certify their destruction.”

Even Big Brother would be appalled at such a blatant conflict of interest.

There are many more examples of such absurdities scattered throughout the various iThing documents, but these amply illustrate the lack of “freedom” in these documents. Apple’s terms and conditions clearly aren’t free precisely because they force developers to conform to an arbitrary mold. On the other hand, an equally insidious “freedom to do as you’re told” pervades recent proposals that Google require all Android device manufacturers to provide “stock” builds of Android without manufacturers’ modifications installed.

Android is an open platform, so it seems natural that anyone should have a right to any version of it they desire — and they do. But just as Apple’s restrictions are arbitrary and capricious, they have the right to make those restrictions on a market that they own. Similarly, Android devices with silly skins or no access to the official market may be idiotic, but companies are well within their right to make such restrictions. Just because a restriction comes from the masses in the form of a virulent open source license doesn’t make it “more free.” Freedom means not dictating, instead of dictating seemingly more palatable terms.

So how can the tyranny of short sighted and arbitrary terms be overcome? Simple: users and developers need to demand freedom and choice, and policies will eventually change, particularly as viable alternatives become available.

Don’t think it’s possible? Consider the case (inside Apple no less) of iTunes, which transitioned from selling songs crippled with DRM technology to songs not so encumbered largely at the behest of consumers.

When companies see the money their policies leave on the table, they’ll eventually change their ways.

In the meantime, visit http://jailbreakme.com, raise the Jolly Roger and set sail a free man.

Christopher is chief software architect at MiKandi LLC, an “open” mobile application store.