Censored: Apple Content Filtering Needs Work

Censorship is a bad word in the United States. We enjoy our freedoms, and don’t like the idea of someone choosing what we can or can’t see. Yet, censorship occurs all the time in the form of content filtering based on what is "age appropriate", and somehow that is perfectly acceptable. A recent Apple App Store rejection, though, highlights the capricious nature of censoring content.

A story from Gizmodo reports that Apple is apparently OK with 12 year olds reading about g-spots, or the 50 kinky sex moves men love, but a scientific article about the penis was rejected as inappropriate for the same audience.

Apple censored "penis" but allowed "kinky sex moves" for content aimed at 12 year olds.
As a parent, I’m not sure I agree that the scientific article about the penis is age appropriate for 12 year olds either, but I assure you I would much rather have my 12 year old son or daughter read a factual scientific article about the penis than to learn the 50 kinky sex moves men love from Cosmopolitan.

Apple isn’t alone in its arbitrary moral judgments. Facebook has also faced some backlash for removing photos of mothers breastfeeding their babies as “inappropriate”, while allowing much more questionable images.

Jon Stewart recently examined the irony of TV censorship on The Daily Show. While discussing the arguments being made in the United States Supreme Court regarding the censorship guidelines in place for broadcast television, Stewart aired a montage poignantly illustrating the ridiculous irony of penalizing networks for partial nudity and “wardrobe malfunctions” while allowing grotesque violence and topics like sodomy to go unfiltered.

Of course, these guidelines exist for a reason, and there is evidence of content filtering based on what is age appropriate all over the place. A child can walk into the corner store and buy a pack of gum, but he can’t buy a pack of cigarettes. A kid can go to a book store (it’s a brick and mortar building where they sell words printed on paper…ask your parents) and buy the latest issue of PCWorld, but not Hustler. A teen can go to a theater and see Chronicle, but not The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

There is a problem, though, with drawing any line in the sand delineating what is acceptable, and what is not -- who decides where the line goes? Sensitivity to particular issues or content, and the moral compass that might guide the placement of such an arbitrary line vary wildly from culture to culture, and from individual to individual.

It seems reasonable for Apple, Facebook, network television, the motion picture industry, and others to enforce some standards based on what is socially acceptable. However, social norms are still offensive to some while being prude to others, and they evolve over time.

The real issue is that acceptable censorship is very subjective. I don’t agree with the decision, but apparently the people in charge of the Apple App Store are offended by the word “penis” for 12 year olds, but find “kinky sex moves” perfectly acceptable.

It’s their line in the sand, not mine.

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter

Comments