Apple's New Guidelines Mean App-solutely Nothing

Apple iPad apps
Apple iPad apps

Opacity and capriciousness are a hard habit to break for Apple (AAPL). The Cupertino, Calif.-based technology company has endured plenty of criticism for the mysterious and frequently arbitrary-seeming process it uses to decide which apps it will and won't make available through its iTunes store. On Thursday, it responded to that criticism by releasing a new set of guidelines for app developers, laying out its thinking about what will and won't trigger a rejection.

Sounds like progress, right? But Apple's attempt at glasnost is surprisingly hard to distinguish from business as usual. At best, the guidelines don't do much more than make official what was already obvious: that Apple will rely on its own judgment in determining what appears in the app store. At worst, they threaten to increase the confusion and anxiety of developers by trying to pass off capriciousness as clarity.

Take Apple's now-notorious porno ban. Chairman Steve Jobs was already on the record saying he wants to give Apple users "freedom from porn." But just where the line between porn and acceptable mature content would be drawn was always hazy.

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The new guidelines seek to disperse some of the fog with this pronouncement: "Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster's Dictionary as 'explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings', will be rejected."

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That sounds helpful, but it's actually misleading. The app store already sells apps that meet Webster's definition of pornographic material -- for instance, Cosmopolitan magazine's "Sex Position of the Day" app, which I described in an earlier post. Whether or not you'd consider it pornography, it indisputably offers "explicit descriptions. . .or sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings." In fact, that's allit offers.

Elsewhere in the guidelines, Apple acknowledges that it pretty much comes down to a judgment call: "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.'"

Fair enough. But if Apple is ultimately going to rely on horse sense to distinguish porn from non-porn -- or acceptable satire from hate speech, or professional commentary from amateur spewing -- why bother publishing rules that suggest otherwise?