… But the fact that apps must routinely face approval masks how extraordinary the situation is: tech companies are in the business of approving, one by one, the text, images, and sounds that we are permitted to find and experience on our most common portals to the networked world. Why would we possibly want this to be how the world of ideas works, and why would we think that merely having competing tech companies—each of which is empowered to censor—solves the problem?
This is especially troubling as governments have come to realize that this framework makes their own censorship vastly easier: what used to be a Sisyphean struggle to stanch the distribution of books, tracts, and then websites is becoming a few takedown notices to a handful of digital gatekeepers. Suddenly, objectionable content can be made to disappear by pressuring a technology company in the middle. When Exodus International—”[m]obilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality”—released an app that, among other things, inveighed against homosexuality, opponents not only rated it poorly (one-star reviews were running two-to-one against five-star reviews) but also petitioned Apple to remove the app. Apple did.
To be sure, the Mac App Store, unlike its iPhone and iPad counterpart, is not the only way to get software (and content) onto a Mac. You can, for now, still install software on a Mac without using the App Store. And even on the more locked-down iPhone and iPad, there’s always the browser: Apple may monitor apps’ content—and therefore be seen as taking responsibility for it—but no one seems to think that Apple should be in the business of restricting what websites Safari users can visit. Question to those who stand behind the anti-Exodus petition: would you also favor a petition demanding that Apple prevent iPhone and iPad users from getting to Exodus’s website on Safari? If not, what’s different, since Apple could trivially program Safari to implement such restrictions? Does it make sense that South Park episodes are downloadable through iTunes, but the South Park app containing the same content was banned from the App Store?