Culture wars in the App Store (and what they mean)

In a career packed with sound bites, the late Steve Jobs offered one of his best when describing his vision for a family-friendly Apple App Store.

“We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone,” he famously responded, in an email to a customer. “Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone.”

This stance was clear, but hard to apply in the flood of information and images on the World Wide Web. After all, many consumers are very easy to offend, when hot buttons get pushed. What about that Playboy app, which was accepted?

In the introduction to the App Store guidelines, which many observers believed were written by Jobs, it’s clear where Apple executives expected to encounter trouble — sex and religion.

“If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app,” stated this 2010 document. “We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ ”

Sex is sex, but many consumers are just as offended by religious views they consider dangerous or judgmental. Mix sex and religion and Apple team really gets nervous.

Brian Pellot, a London-based reporter on religion-liberty issues, recently dug into App Store history and produced a list of symbolic faith-based products rejected by Apple.

“I basically just searched around until I came up with five that were somewhat relevant to religion,” he said, via email. “I think a lot of these were flagged because of perceived or feared offense. Not so much because they had to do with religion but because Apple doesn’t want to upset users.”

It doesn’t help, he added, that it’s “easier for people to pick fights behind the online mask of anonymity.”

In his Religion News Service essay, Pellot focused on these apps:

* “Me So Holy,” which allowed “users to paste their faces onto the bodies of religious figures including nuns, priests and Jesus.”

* The “Jew or Not Jew?” app helped users investigate Jewish celebrities.

* 3. The “iSlam Muhammad” app pointed readers toward “violent and hateful” Quran passages that “encourage Muslims to attack and behead anyone who does not agree with them.” Apple accepted some apps that “ridicule other religious texts, including the Bible,” noted Pellot.

* An app from the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International was removed after protests from gay-rights organizations.

* The Manhattan Declaration app promoted the work of those affirming the “sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife.” It also was deemed offensive by gay-rights groups.

This latter decision was especially aggravating to leaders of traditional religious groups — Protestant, Catholic and Jewish — active in the drafting of the online manifesto.

“Apple is, obviously, a private company with the right to allow or disallow any apps it wants,” said Russell Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“The exclusion of the Manhattan Declaration app is troubling because it signals one more example of a cultural marginalization of the expression of belief held by those of various faith traditions. … The freedom of consumers to download an app obviously doesn’t imply endorsement of a viewpoint by Apple, so why exclude this one?”

It’s crucial to understand that Apple and many other digital trailblazers have evolved into corporate giants guided by lawyers and public-affairs consultants armed with opinion polls and market surveys, said George Gilder, author of digital-culture works such as “Telecosm: The World After Bandwidth Abundance” and “The Silicon Eye: Microchip Swashbucklers and the Future of High-Tech Innovation.”

“All such institutions respond abjectly to intimidation” and that is especially true when they encounter issues as politically volatile as homosexuality and radicalized forms of Islam, he said. Also, when it comes to offending elite digital executives, some voices are more offensive than others.

Thus, the “wimps in Silicon Valley” are often quick to pull religious material that will cause controversy in their own cultural circles, he said.

“It’s pretty pathetic but it is just the way it is,” said Gilder. “It’s good news for smaller companies, though.”

NEXT WEEK: Are religious debates being driven from the digital mainstream?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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