Apple’s Power Over the Open Internet

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Apple has been both praised and criticized over their rigid standards for the App Store. Parents tend to appreciate knowing that porn and other indecent material will not be readily available via apps. The ones where it is able to be found can be restricted through parental settings, making parental control realistic and not too difficult for those who want to take advantage of it.

Of course, like any argument, there is another side. There are adults who would prefer to make up their own minds and make their own decisions about what content they consume. However, the App Store is Apple’s own sandbox that they built and run, and they can institute whatever rules they choose on it. There are alternatives, including other platforms like Android, or just using the open web, which is easily accessible via the built-in Safari browser.

In recent weeks, we got an interesting example of just how much power Apple has over said open Internet. Unfortunately, it seems that power extends well beyond their own platforms. I’ll be clear and up-front right now and state that, while I think Apple sometimes goes a bit far in limiting speech that some find offensive, they are within their rights to police their own platform. There are no Constitutional free speech issues with anything I’m about to cover. That said, in the case of Tumblr and their recent blanket ban of pornographic and erotic content from their platform, Apple’s influence went well beyond the just the App Store. While I won’t complain about the result, I don’t believe this is a good thing for the Internet at large.

For anyone who isn’t aware of this situation, Apple booted the Tumblr app out of the App Store a few weeks ago. The claim was that child pornography was available on the Internet blogging service. Sadly, that may well have been true. While such content was against the online blogging service’s Terms of Service, they were well known for not doing a good job of enforcing it. Porn was readily available and easy to access once the SafeSearch feature was disabled. In fact, sad as it may be for a one-time Internet giant, this has been one of Tumblr’s most popular uses for the last five years or more.

What was Tumblr’s response to Apple’s move? A blanket wipe of all such content from their service. Even though it had become well known as a haven for porn, their need to be available on Apple’s App Store was so great that they couldn’t let the ban stand. Such is the amount of Apple’s leverage. As of today, Apple still hasn’t lifted that ban, but you can be sure that they will in the not-distant future. It’s the least they can do for Tumblr going as far as they have to conform to Apple’s standards.

Why am I complaining about this? Because of how far the effects of Apple’s decisions are going. Not only did Tumblr institute a blanket ban of porn from their app, but their entire service. Apple’s actions reached beyond the App Store to the open Internet. Facebook also responded to this move from Apple by altering its Terms of Service to further entrench its stance against pornographic content. While I don’t mind the end results here, it’s the means and the power behind this whole thing that I take issue with. Apple now knows that it can bring all but the biggest companies and services to heel with an App Store ban.

While I am fine with Apple policing its own App Store, I don’t think that they have any business wielding the power to limit what’s available on the open web. This goes the same for any other large tech company, such as Google or Microsoft. No platform, manufacturer or service provider should have this kind of power over content that’s available outside of their own domains. Unfortunately, we have collectively given these companies exactly that. The questions now is, how far will they take it?


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