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
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496