Opinion: Apple's slide into censorship

Apple logoThe philosophy of total control which has helped Apple develop some of the most stylish products of the last two decades has a sinister underside. From ensuring that customers buy compatible products to censoring what they do on them is a small, dangerous step. That’s what Apple is now doing, and where it goes others will follow.

Exclusion has been an Apple core value consistently under the charismatic leadership of Steve Jobs. People laugh about him being a perfectionist control freak. The saying “buying a Mac is like buying a car with its bonnet wielded shut” is not a totally unfair description of the way the company restricts the software and hardware that will run with its computers and other devices.

For its fanatically loyal consumers it’s a philosophy that works. Apple’s products are generally reliable with an ease and consistency of use that competitors often lack. When you buy a non-Apple PC, for instance, you can choose whether it runs Windows or another operating system and an almost infinite number of other programs and peripherals. With the amount of choice given to consumers who aren’t experts, it’s amazing their computers don’t crash more often.

This flexibility is at the heart of another “joke”, if that’s the right way to describe the thoughts of Italian intellectual Umberto Eco. In 1994 he described Microsoft’s software as Protestant. “It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation.”

Apple, he said, was Catholic. “It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach –if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed.” The parallels continue today, sometimes in ways that are less than edifying.

Ensuring that adherents only follow the one true way also means excluding works that might lead them on the wrong path. So, for over 400 years until 1966, the Catholic Church published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or “List of Prohibited Books” to protect the faithful. Now it’s Apple’s turn.

It set up a system of approval for its App Store with apparently benevolent logic. Buyers know they won’t download anything which could have a nasty effect on their treasured iPhones. Of course, a 30 per cent cut from each app sold doesn’t do Apple’s profits any harm either, but it’s also a slippery slope.

For several months Apple has been excluding apps from its store on grounds not of reliability, but of taste. Many of these apps are “adult themed”, but not exactly hardcore pornography. In February, for instance, the Wobble iBoobs App was pulled. This threat to public decency allowed users to mark areas on a picture to make them jiggle with a shake of the iPhone. There’s a fully-clothed demonstration of the Australian app here.

It’s all a bit of a giggle when nothing more is involved than a few mucky mobile phone games. But Apple is moving into a new arena with the iPad. One of its main goals is to “reimagine” the traditional printed book. I hope it fails. Refusing to sell silly smut is one thing, censoring magazines and books is another.

However, from a purely business perspective there might not be much difference. The iPad just has a bigger screen. To take advantage of this, publishers are creating apps to display content including digital versions of newspapers, books and magazines. But before an app goes on sale its supplier has to agree to a “Regional Content Review”, where Apple decides what is suitable for a particular country.

One of the biggest players in the world of digital magazines is Zinio which claims to have 50,000 titles on its online newsstand. Pay a subscription now and you can read any of them on your laptop. There’s also an iPad app to allow owners to see the likes of National Geographic in glorious colour.

But Zinio also produces digital versions of Playboy and Penthouse. The company recently told ZDNet that these won’t be available to American iPad users. And it’s not just these “top-shelf” titles; lad mags such as FHM and Maxim will be banned by Apple, along with Vogue France because it features occasional artistic nudity.

OK, so the Americans can be particularly prudish, and a lack of nipples on the iPad probably isn’t a major civil liberties issue. But the same arguments about local sensitivities can be used in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Burma and China, which actually manufactures the iPad. As Google’s currently discovering, the Chinese have fairly hard line sensitivities when it comes to censorship.

Some will point out that there are ways to circumvent the content controls on the iPad. But that’s irrelevant. The point is that a device which has the stated aim of replacing the printed book has been developed with a built-in censorship mechanism at its core. That should concern us all.

It’s not just Apple that’s guilty. In an act of supreme irony, Amazon removed copies of 1984 from its customers’ Kindles. They switched on their e-readers to find George Orwell’s books had just disappeared from memory. Amazon’s action was intended to resolve a breach of copyright, but Big Brother couldn’t have done it better.

Of course, if it ever happens it’ll take a long time for e-readers to supplant printed books. But, as they fall in price, it’ll make sense for publications with small print runs to go purely digital. If these books or magazines upset the wrong people Apple, Amazon or the authorities will be able to make them vanish. No dictator will need to burn books ever again.

This sounds extreme, but censorship is pernicious. Freedom of the press, for instance, doesn’t affect 99.99 per cent of newspaper articles. It’s vital for the one in 10,000 that expose wrongdoing. Anything that makes the work of censors easier is a threat.