Banned in Cupertino

Apple will reject books from the App Store that contain content it finds objectionable. It's within its rights to do so, but how does the company define "objectionable?"

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read
CNET reviewer David Carnoy's book was rejected from Apple's App Store due to 'objectionable content.' Amazon

Add one more headache for whoever is running Apple's App Store approval process: edgy books.

Books aren't a huge part of the App Store, but there are more than 600 titles for sale, ranging from classics to Japanese comic books. CNET's own David Carnoy has a new detective thriller out called Knife Music, but you won't find it on the App Store.

That's because when Carnoy enlisted a software developer to submit the book to the App Store, Apple rejected the book for containing "objectionable content," citing a clause in the iPhone SDK that states: "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 judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users."

You've got two basic choices if you want to buy a book on the App Store; you can buy an application like Stanza or eReader and then download the books themselves from a Web site, or buy a book with self-contained e-reader software, which is how Carnoy's book was submitted.

In its rejection letter, Apple singled out the passage in question, which we actually can't print either. Let's just say it involves a teenage girl telling a detective that she overheard her friend asking a gentleman caller to "love me like you mean it," just with a slightly more emphatic verb.

Carnoy's developer, Alex Brie, believes Apple is checking for objectionable content using word-matching software, as it would be hard to believe that the company hired someone to read every book submitted to the App Store.

"Apple's staff shouldn't be allowed to refuse to publish works of literature based only on word matching. Even more, what would happen if I (a Romanian) would publish an ebook filled with Romanian obscenities? - would Apple's staff need to learn Romanian...and read the entire ebook...to make sure this doesn't happen?" he said in an e-mail.

Trying to determine the exact definition of terms such as obscene, pornographic, and objectionable is always a controversial issue. And Apple is within its rights to dictate what it will sell on its store.

Right from the start of Apple's decision to open the iPhone up to third-party applications, CEO Steve Jobs singled out "porn" as one of the things that would be prohibited from the App Store, but Carnoy's book, while racy in parts, would not be described as "porn" by any reasonable observer.

Apple's definition of "objectionable" has been questioned before. After initially balking, Apple finally relented to the extremely influential fart joke lobby last week and permitted applications such as Pull My Finger and iFart Mobile (ranked 3rd and 10th, respectively, among paid App Store applications at the moment) under what was described as a "Mature" section.

Joel Comm, the developer of iFart Mobile, said in an e-mail that he was told Apple had decided to rate his app "Mature 17+," and that would-be downloaders would have to certify their age before purchasing the application. But that wasn't the case when I tried to download the app Friday, and there is nothing in the description of iFart Mobile that indicates it is only suitable for those over 17. Nor is there any section of the App Store labeled as "Mature 17+" at the moment.

Once again, we're realizing just how overwhelmed Apple has become serving as the exclusive gatekeeper for iPhone applications without clear rules and regulations for its inspectors to follow--and developers to heed--in making calls about what can stay and what must go. Apple representatives did not return several calls seeking comment; as far as I can tell, Apple has never commented on the App Store approval process, six months after its debut.

Apple offers plenty of movies that a lot of people would consider "objectionable" over in the iTunes Store, but movies have a well-known and widely accepted rating system. (For what it's worth, Apple does not offer NC-17 movies on the iTunes Store.)

There is no such standard for rating books. Valuable pieces of English literature contain the word that appears to have killed the chances of Knife Music making it into the App Store. And equally well-regarded books have dealt with the subject of teenage sexuality in frank terms.

If Apple really wants to offer books on the App Store, it is going to have to strike a balance between a desire to keep out-and-out porn off the App Store while avoiding comparisons to a modern-day Anthony Comstock. Apple doesn't have to sell erotica if it doesn't want to, but simply rejecting books because they use one of George Carlin's seven favorite words is going to exclude an awful lot of literature.