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31 August 2012

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

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

By Alex Hern

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.”

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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.