Apple's App Store Censorship Doesn't Make Any Sense

Yves Herman / Reuters

Apple reserves the right to deny apps entry into its App Store, but its application of this policy is maddeningly inconsistent.

Take the case of software engineer Charles Yeh, who developed an app called Speed Camera Alert and recently tried submitting it to Apple's marketplace. The company decided to block his program -- which tells drivers in Washington, D.C., when they're nearing local police speed cameras -- from being sold in the App Store and downloaded on iOS devices.

Here's what Apple told Yeh, according to The Washington Post:

“Your app contains content or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity ­ that is not legal in all of the locations where the app is available. Specifically, the primary purpose of your app is to identify speed trap locations.”

However, there are already a ton of similar apps available for download in the App Store. Those got by Apple's censors. Why not Yeh's app?

A quick search for "speed camera" in Apple's catalog of approved applications found that not only are there apps that seem to do exactly what Speed Camera Alert did, but there are others with features that offer something pretty similar. The traffic app Waze, for example, has reporting and mapping features for fixed speed cameras and "police hazards," from speed traps to mobile cameras.

Just look at the examples below to get a sense of what's already live in the App Store. (There's even one called Fuzz Alert.)

Fuzz Alert app
Speedcam app

Yeh's app, by contrast, is relatively simple: It just maps the location of fixed traffic cameras using publicly available information posted online by the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department. There's no crowdsourced reporting feature, like Waze, that implicitly encourages distracted driving. It's just public data -- available on the Web -- mapped in an app.

You can see a simple video of the Speed Camera Alert below:

The illogicality of Apple's decision is breathtaking, especially taken in the context of the company's decision this week to pull a separate app showing public reports of drone strikes. Developed by Josh Begley, an editor at The Intercept, the drone strike app was first approved by Apple then yanked because it violated the company's app guidelines on "excessively objectionable or crude content."

That provoked reasonable criticism from Gawker's Sam Biddle, who said, "It’s hard to imagine what about national security news presented in text format could be considered 'crude' (let alone 'excessively' so), and while the idea of extrajudicial killings is objectionable, aggregated news of it happening isn’t."

Apple also prohibits apps that contain "mean-spirited" personal attacks, except if they're delivered by professional satirists or humorists like cartoonist Mark Fiore.

Whether or not you agree that the First Amendment protects the ability of the public to use phones and apps to record and publish the locations of police officers or traffic cameras -- a feature that cops have urged Google to turn off in Waze and even tried to spread misinformation about -- Apple's inconsistency on this point is troubling.

As Apple moves more directly into the role of a traditional publisher, with its own news app delivering readers a mix of personalized content from media companies around the web, the hard news it makes available will often include crude, rude, upsetting or objectionable facts, from stories about shooting deaths to images of the Confederate Flag.

The uneven record the company has on apps means that trusting Apple for news might not be a slam dunk. Here's hoping that the iPhone-maker's attitude toward free expression matches its commitment to other human rights.