Mobile Apps

Apple removes iPhone app that reports US drone strikes

Metadata+ was deemed to contain "excessively rude or objectionable content" and no longer is in Apple's App Store.

This Lockheed UCLASS concept drone hints at the future for unmanned aircraft. Lockheed Martin

Apple removed two mobile apps from its App Store that report deaths caused by US drone strikes. Its reasoning? The apps contained "excessively rude or objectionable content."

Metadata+ was designed by Intercept editor Josh Begley as a project to push out openly available data published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about drone strikes. It has been available on the App Store since early 2014, after Apple rejected it several times under its original name, Drones+, according to Fast Company.

This week Metadata+ was removed from the App Store for having "excessively rude or objectionable content," Gawker reported. Begley's second app, Ephemeral+, which records drone strikes, has also subsequently been taken down, the Guardian reported and Begley tweeted.

The move spotlights the complicated issues Apple and its customers face trying to strike the right balance between a safe environment and one that's been too sanitized. Apple is known for carefully policing exactly which iPhone and iPad apps appear on its App Store to protect customers from damaging malware and other unsavory apps, but too much scrubbing limits iPhones' usefulness as a tool for learning about the real world.

In the case of Metadata+, though, there are plenty of other sources of the same information, including the Dronestream Twitter account.

Apple declined to comment on the issue but highlighted the App Store guidelines that include the clause about objectionable content that has landed Begley in hot water.

Delve a little deeper and it becomes apparent that Apple purposefully left its guidelines vague, flexible and open to interpretation. Citing the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1963 opinion about pornography, the guidelines say: "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.' And we think that you will also know it when you cross it."

One-size-fits-all content guidelines are impossible, given differing social norms around the world and the immense audience of people who use iPads and iPhones. But Apple's wiggle room can make life difficult for app programmers trying to figure out exactly what is appropriate.

This isn't the first time Apple has made touchy decisions about pulling apps from its Store. Earlier this year, it removed apps featuring the Confederate flag, including games that recreated historical battles. The company has an appeals process that Begley could use to try to change Apple's mind on the matter, but it is not yet known if he will.

Begley didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but on Twitter he posted screenshots of the messages he has received from Apple so far, saying he hopes people have downloaded the apps onto their phones since that's the only way they'll continue to work. He also posted a screenshot of a game called Cops Escape. "Seriously though, how is this an app and Dronestream isn't?" he asked.