Apple censors Republican Congressional candidate

A Republican Congressional candidate says Apple blocked distribution of his campaign app through the iPhone App Store, one of several politically conservative apps that Apple censored while allowing more liberal equivalents to get published.

Ari David, a conservative running in Santa Monica, Calif., says Apple blocked his app because it was "defamatory" of the incumbent for that seat, powerful Democrat Henry Waxman, according to a May 15 statement on David's Web site.

The post lists statements that Apple found defamatory, criticizing Waxman's stand on Cap & Trade legislation, cuts to Medicare spending, opposition to missile funding, and that Waxman "tried to strangle family farms with insane Soviet-style regulation."

I spoke with David Sunday. He said since posting that statement on his Web site, his staff researched the history of Apple screening political apps in the App Store, and found a liberal bias.

Apple rejected an application called iSlam Muhammad that criticized the Quran, while permitting BibleThumper, which similarly criticizes the Christian Bible, David said.

From the App Store description of BibleThumper:

This is the perfect Atheist bible companion! Next time one of those bible thumpers starts proselytizing, you will be able to answer in kind with the juiciest quotes straight from the holy bible. Included are a selection of the most funny, irrational & strange quotes from the bible.

Apple also permitted iChe, an application celebrating Che Guevera, according to David.

Earlier, Apple rejected an app by Pulitzer-Prize-winning political cartoonist Mark Fiore, although Apple later relented and now offers the NewsToons app in the App Store. The NewsToons app included political satire against President Obama, among other figures.

I asked David whether Apple has a right to block apps -- even block them in a politically biased fashion -- given that Apple owns the App Store. "Absolutely," David said. "There's nothing necessarily legally wrong with it, just as there's also nothing wrong with me in a political season revealing to the world what's wrong with my opponent."

He added, "I don't have a Constitutional right to an iPhone application, but they don't have a right to keep me from talking."

Legalities aside, I asked David if he thinks it's right for Apple to filter political apps. He said, "The way I look at it, iPhone applications are becoming somewhat of a de facto standard. Similar to the way Hare Krishnas are allowed to give out flowers and literature at the airport, even if the airport is privately run in partnership with the public, with the iPhone becoming the standard for mobile applications, it is wrong for them to stifle expression of certain ideas with the world through the portal."

He denied that the app's statements about Waxman are defamatory. "It was not defamatory, it was true, famously true. Waxman is famous for getting healthcare passed, and promoting the Cap & Trade bill. If we're just saying things that are known facts within the media, for Apple to call that speech defamatory is looking at it from a very biased perspective."

David's experience is just the latest example of problems with App Store filtering. The process is broken. Apple can take several routes to fix it.

Apple could throw the iPhone open to all developers, as the Mac is now. In this scenario, Apple could keep the App Store as is, for apps getting the Apple seal of approval, but also allow users to install apps from anywhere. That would be the ideal solution; after all, it's the user's phone, the user paid for it, and should be able to install whatever apps he wants to install. But I don't see that as likely; it violates Apple's central business model for the iPhone.

Another option would be to filter apps for technical reasons, but not for content. If your app is a security risk or unstable, then it gets blocked, but everything else goes. That's unlikely too; Steve Jobs reportedly wants to keep the App Store family-friendly. Civil libertarians chafe at those kinds of restrictions, but they're hardly new, they go back at least a century in America, and we as a society have managed to work around those restrictions to have free discourse on other subjects.

Still, even if the App Store continues to block adult content, it needs to grow up. Apple can continue to block porn and other graphic content, but it should explicitly allow political speech, which most definitely includes "defamation" of public figures. Stop treating your customers like babies, Apple, you're better than that.

(Also, would it kill you to answer e-mail every once in a while? As usual, Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this blog. And it's not just me, Apple is notoriously loath to talk to bloggers and journalists.)

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

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