Apple Boots out the Booty

In The Apple Soft Porn Store, I wrote about the standard of some of the content in the App Store. To reiterate, my main problem was not that these applications existed but rather that the parental controls available were not appropriately filtering them out of listings and search.

Today, TechCrunch reports that Apple has started pulling "overtly sexual" applications from the App Store. This is good news for anyone trying to deploy iPhone OS devices in an educational context.

I do feel a little uncomfortable that some developers have had the rug yanked out from under them. That said, if there was one kind of app that it was absolutely clear from day one that Apple looked down upon, it was "adult" apps. Steve Jobs said so on the day he announced the App Store. Why those rules haven't been enforced I'm not sure (I suspect lack of staff effort), but they are being enforced now.

Additionally, I just did a little check and iTunes (on the desktop) now hides the screenshots of apps whose ratings are above the level set in iTunes' parental controls. That was one of my main concerns in the earlier post and Apple has addressed this, which is great.

An unfortunate consequence of this, though, is that developers whose apps retrieve content from the web will all have their screenshots hidden. It's not my concern right now but, in the longer term, Apple needs to develop a way to distinguish between "Frequent/Intense {sexual,gambling, drug use,violent} content" and "accesses the internet".

I should add that I don't really claim personal credit for this. Apple's emails to developers cite "numerous customer complaints" which, I bet, outweigh my complaints 1000-to-1. Having said that, it was fairly clear that the App Store as it stood was inappropriate for use in schools and, with the launch of the iPad, I'm sure that's a market Apple want to target.

Apple Reversing Policy on Smut Apps?

Following up on The Apple Soft Porn Store, Krapps is reporting (NSFW) that Apple has started removing and rejecting apps that exist to show pictures of ladies in various states of undress.

I have no information to prove or disprove that my bug reports, articles and the subsequent coverage on Ars Technica has anything to do with this policy change. There will, I understand, be an article in the Sunday Times this weekend on the issue (I was photographed for the piece on Friday).

My bug reports didn't request an App Store policy change, as much as a slightly tighter enforcement of the parental controls that already exist. Still, it's good to see Apple living up to their original intent for the App Store.

[Update] It strikes me that, although this wasn't what I asked for, it's probably less effort for Apple than trying to clarify the conflation of "contains smut" and "loads web pages" that the current ratings policy requires.

iPod touch in School

My thanks to Chris Foresman at Ars Technica for covering the issue of restricted applications being browseable in the App Store, even when restricted. I wanted to write a bit more about a couple of issues that people have raised in comments both on Twitter and at Ars.

That's not Porn, this is Porn

It was never my intention with this to get into a debate about the definition of pornography. I used the title "The Apple Soft Porn Store" to be catchy and memorable, but nothing here really hinges on the how-many-sirens-can-lapdance-on-the-head-of-a-pin question of "is it porn?".

The point is that these applications have been given an age rating for a reason. Many of these apps only exist to present images that are delivered inside the application binary and, thus, viewing screenshots of the app is little different to installing and using the app, except in terms of the number of images available, perhaps.

Kids Can See Porn On the Web At Home

Of course they can. What they can't do is see porn using my computers, on my network in my school and expect to get away with it. Plenty things happen outside school that aren't allowed inside school:

Young men have been known to sort out their differences with a bout of fisticuffs in the local park but we don't fit them for school-issue gumshields.

The senior pupils may illicitly partake of the gift of Dionysus of a weekend but we don't serve Beaujolais in the lunch hall.

That similar images are freely available elsewhere in society is to miss the point so completely as to disqualify you from the discussion. If I handed out copies of Nuts magazine in my classroom and explained to parents that there's no problem because their sons can get that from the newsagent too, how long do you think I would be in a job?

17+ Isn't Just For Porn

Apple's policy is that any application that may retrieve content from the open internet has to be rated 17+. Some people pointed out that removing all 17+ apps from restricted devices is unfair to those apps. I agree, but I also think that the number of age-restricted devices and iTunes accounts in the world will be but a tiny fraction of the total market.

The core problem here is that Apple's ratings and policy cannot discriminate between "frequent/intense sexual content" and "loads web pages".

Why Use iPod Touch and Not Netbooks?

This is about the only genuinely good question to arise from the Ars thread. There are a few reasons, which I'll discuss:

Firstly, I like NetBooks for education. I think they're pretty great for people whose hands are half the size of an adult's. The problem is that Netbooks are, largely, sold as commodity items in supermarkets.

We have 100 pupils in the school. When you phone up most places and say "I would like to buy about one hundred of your narrowest-margin items", the answer is along the lines of "jolly good, nip off to our website and use your credit card, there's a good chap".

We have a great relationship with our local Apple Store and, for us, that's a huge advantage. It's an advantage in pre-sales and it's an advantage in post-sales support and repair. Having a drop-off/pick-up repair shop 30 minutes drive away beats the pants off having to ship it off to some remote warehouse-based repair place. This is triply-true when you have 150+ devices under your command and simple statistics say that you're going to see a higher absolute number of failures.

Another reason that some teachers brought up is that a laptop of any size (even a netbook) quickly becomes the only thing on the desk. It's precisely because we want to use a range of high- and low-technological teaching tools that we were led to look at the iPod touch. A little iPod sitting on the desk alongside books, paper and pencil doesn't dominate the learning experience in the way that a laptop does.

Finally, there's the charging issue. We could reasonably expect to get a whole school day's worth of use out of an iPod touch on one charge. We're looking at putting the 4-port Griffin PowerDock into the classrooms so that kids whose devices are running low can juice them up during a lesson.

Speirs, You Suck and Should Be Fired

Well both of these things are probably true and, like Pete Venkman, I'd go quietly and enjoy my time in prison.

The Apple Soft Porn Store

The school I work at is looking at deploying iPod touch to every pupil. My job, as you might expect, is to Make It Happen in accordance with policy. We have internet policies and appropriate-use policies.

After some research, preference-tweaking and so on, I have one conclusion to share with you. Despite Steve's insistence that Apple wouldn't carry porn in the App Store:

The App Store is so full of soft porn apps that I cannot provide access to the App Store and comply with our acceptable use policies.

There are many good reasons to provide access: the students can enhance and personalise their devices with apps that we haven't thought of, and we could easily deploy new applications.

The core problem is this: none of the parental controls actually remove restricted-rating applications from App Store searches and browsing. All the restrictions do is prevent purchase of the app.

If you haven't seen what I'm talking about, you probably haven't been in the Lifestyle section of the App Store recently. How about:

These screenshots were captured from iTunes with the content restriction on applications set to "4+". Hardly content for a four-year-old, wouldn't you say?

On the iPhone, the situation is a little better. When Restrictions are turned on, restricted apps cannot be purchased and the screenshots are hidden too. This goes some way to helping but the names and descriptions of the applications are sufficiently suggestive that they would be inappropriate for school:

"Epic Boobs features only the most amazingly epic breasts from all over the world. Hand picked, this is an amazing collection of only the most awesome sets female breasts." [sic]

...or, indeed:

"Also check out my other sexy babe apps, including: Self-Shot Boobs, MILFs, Scene Girls, Amateur Babe Collection, Sexy Buns, Boob Facts"

Now, of course, the internet itself contains plenty of porn. However, we have tools in place to deal with that: logging and filtering proxies. I've never believed that technology alone can keep children safe on the internet, but a combination of technology, policy and a good chance of being caught has deterred most so far.

The problem with the App Store on iPhone OS and in iTunes on the desktop is that it can't be filtered in the same way. All HTTP requests go to some server ending in phobos.apple.com, and it's very hard to distinguish suitable content from unsuitable. Even if we could, it's not clear how that would leave the user in a non-browser client like iTunes when they tripped the filter.

It's time Apple did something about this. I've filed radar bugs with Apple for both the iPhone OS App Store application and the App Store in iTunes 9. If you're a developer, you might want to file duplicate bugs on this. If you're a parent or at all concerned about this, you could send Apple feedback on iTunes or the iPhone

Radar Links

  • iTunes does not hide restricted applications from app store: rdar://7560200, publicly viewable at OpenRadar.
  • I dupe'd Jiva DeVoe's bug "App Store 17+ Apps show up in iTunes regardless of parental control settings": rdar://7551166 and at OpenRadar.