Apple: reporting on drone warfare is "objectionable and crude"

The company has blocked "Drones+" from its app store.

Wired's Danger Room blog reports that Apple has blocked – for the third time – an app that uses data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to tell users every time somebody is killed by a US drone.

The first two rejections for Drones+ had been technical. Originally, Apple said that the application was "not useful", a clause it maintains to give it the right to prevent the endless proliferation of fart apps that clog up less regulated stores. When the developer, NYU student Josh Begley, complained, the company then picked on the fact that a corporate logo was obscured. A second complaint led to a third rationale for rejection: apparently, the content is "objectionable and crude".

Christina Bonnington and Spencer Ackerman write:

Begley’s app is unlikely to be the next Angry Birds or Draw Something. It’s deliberately threadbare. When a drone strike occurs, Drones+ catalogs it, and presents a map of the area where the strike took place, marked by a pushpin. You can click through to media reports of a given strike that the Bureau of Investigative Reporting compiles, as well as some basic facts about whom the media thinks the strike targeted. As the demo video shows, that’s about it.

It works best, Begley thinks, when users enable push notifications for Drones+. “I wanted to play with this idea of push notifications and push button technology — essentially asking a question about what we choose to get notified about in real time,” he says. “I thought reaching into the pockets of U.S. smartphone users and annoying them into drone-consciousness could be an interesting way to surface the conversation a bit more.”

There's no question that Drones+ is a journalistically important piece of software. In focusing with laser-precision on one area of interest and disseminating that information without comment, spin or bias, it represents an important vision for the future of news. And it's as important artistically, as well: Begley has clearly considered the impact of having a stranger's death ping up on a near weekly basis, treated with the same mundanity as a new tweet or an outbid notification on eBay.

But we won't have the opportunity to experiment with that potential future – at least, not on iOS devices – because, it appears, Apple is afraid of the controversy.

It's not the first time the company has been overzealous in it's drive to make apps as unobjectionable as possible. Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore famously had an app of his rejected for "ridiculing public figures", and the company also refused to host a comic version of Joyce's Ulysses over the fact that it featured the image of a woman's bare breasts. Both those decisions were eventually reversed – although the latter required the author to censor the image – and there may be similarly be hope for Begley yet.

In the meantime, as the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal argues, the difference between 2010 and now is that Apple and the App store are no longer the only players in town:

1) Android has become a legitimate competitor to Apple's iOS and 2) mobile-optimized HTML5 sites can deliver much of the functionality that apps can. Android is known for much looser app approval policies and anyone can build an HTML5 site on the open web, so we've got more options than we once did.

The competition doesn't seem to be worrying Apple though, and the sad truth seems to be that freedom of speech is never going to sell phones.

A predator drone. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.