Apple’s App Store and Freedom of Expression Online

//American University doctoral student Luis E. Hestres analyzes the principles of net neutrality as applied to Apple’s App store approval process. To learn more about this topic, read the full article here.

Should users of Apple’s iOS devices have access to an app that condemns marriage equality? How about an app that lets users create their own joke drivers licenses? Or an app that gives them access to content published by WikiLeaks, or another that advocates for a single-payer health care system in America?

Regardless of one’s opinion of the appropriateness, usefulness or political views represented in these apps, whether they are available to iOS users is, at the moment, up to Apple and Apple alone, which poses a significant problem.

Since launching the iPhone in the summer of 2007, Apple Inc. has become one of the leading manufacturers of wireless communication devices in the world, having sold more than 400 million iOS-based devices to date, including the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Apple’s dominant position in this market includes its App Store, which as of this writing boasts more than 600,000 apps and has surpassed 25 billion downloads. Apple’s iOS ecosystem has become a critical entry point into the Internet, which is one of the most important platforms for political action and personal expression available today.

But unlike the broader Internet, which can be construed as a relatively open communications network, the iOS app store is arguably a closed technological ecosystem. To gain access to the App Store, developers must have their apps approved by Apple. The company’s app review and approval policies have been criticized for being opaque and arbitrary, and have resulted in the rejection of both explicitly and implicitly political apps—including the apps listed in the opening of this article, as well as many others which include:

  • NetToons gave users access to Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s animated cartoons. It was rejected at first but later approved after the rejection was publicized online.
  • The Manhattan Declaration urged individuals to sign a petition condemning same-sex marriage. It was originally approved by Apple, but was then pulled after an online petition garnered just over 7,000 signatures.
  • ThirdIntifada encouraged followers to share opinions and organize protests against Israel. It was removed from the app store at the urging of the Israeli government for allegedly encouraging violence against Israel.

These examples show that Apple’s app approval and rejection policies can be unpredictable, even arbitrary. Apple’s willingness to allow apps to live on its store seems exceedingly vulnerable to outside pressures from the public or, perhaps most troubling, government officials.

The consequences of this highly unreliable approval and rejection process for freedom of expression and political action within the iOS ecosystem, and more generally on the Internet, are profound. Developers who wish to express themselves in either explicitly or implicitly political terms can never be sure whether their apps will be approved, even if they comply with Apple’s technical guidelines—and if they are approved, whether they will stay available on the app store. This not only impacts developers’ ability to express themselves but their bottom lines as well.

Conversely, end users are consistently deprived of content that they might find interesting, compelling or stimulating in some way, as well of opportunities to take political action or express themselves in myriad ways through apps. In short, Apple’s app store policies interfere with what Jack Balkin calls a “democratic culture” in which “ordinary people can participate, both collectively and individually, in the creation and elaboration of cultural meanings that constitute them as individuals.”

The iOS ecosystem has become pervasive enough that Apple’s policies have a substantial effect on freedom of expression online. It is therefore perhaps time that we strongly consider applying the principles of net neutrality to the iOS ecosystem. In other words, “app neutrality” should govern the iOS app approval and rejection process in order to ensure that freedom of expression within the ecosystem, as well as the larger online ecosystem, is protected and nurtured.

Just as we would not look kindly on a regime that arbitrarily rejects—or approves, then rejects—websites because of their political content, we should not look kindly on a regime that does precisely this on the mobile sphere. As the market for mobile devices and services continues to grow at a rapid pace, an expanded conception of “app neutrality” that includes app non-discrimination within mobile app stores should become an increasingly important part of the network neutrality debate.

Luis E. Hestres is a doctoral student at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC, where he is researching Internet-mediated advocacy and global Internet freedom.

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