Apple Rejected the Drone Tracker App Because it Could

Apple Rejected the Drone Tracker App Because it Could

Apple has for the third—and what looks like the final—time rejected an app that would send alerts every time a U.S. military drone made a kill. The first two times Apple said no to Drones+, it said it was "not useful" (we beg to differ), then told the makers there was a problem with the corporate logo, report Danger Room's Christina Bonnington and Spencer Ackerman. This last time, however, Apple has given its definitive no, citing "objectionable and crude" content -- the type of stuff that isn't in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines. It's not clear what part of the app is "objectionable or crude" because as Bonnington and Ackerman put it,  "Drones+ doesn’t present grisly images of corpses left in the aftermath of the strikes. It just tells users when a strike has occurred, going off a publicly available database of strikes compiled by the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism," they write. (Wired has a video of how the app works.) But it doesn't really matter what part they find "objectionable." Apple's history of iPhone app store censorship has shown that Apple does what it wants because it can -- and it's nice enough to have even told the Drones+ makers its reasons.

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Apple has never wanted to key us in on its reasons for doing things because that way it can do what it wanted without explanation. In the earlier years of iPhone app development, Apple didn't tell developers much about the approval (or rejection) process for getting into the app store. In 2009, app makers got overly excited when Apple added a feature that allowed developers to see the status -- that's it! -- of their projects. "It’s the coolest new feature they’ve added [for developers], in my opinion," said Oliver Cameron, maker of the app Postman told Wired's Brian X. Chen. At the time, Chen called the process otherwise "opaque and inconsistent." About a year later, Apple made things a little less opaque, in a way, publishing a set of rules of what they will and won't allow. It still left some "vague areas," in the words of Second Gear developer  Justin Williams, per Chen in a separate Wired post. Like this: "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.'" We are now seeing how grey an area like that can get, and how the current rules still let Apple do what it wants. 

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We could surmise what part of the app went "over the line." It's not completely obvious that Drones+ put out anything as offensive as the porn that Apple took out en masse in 2009. But it's more controversial than a game about drawing somethings. "Apple might just be hedging their bets, as drone strikes and the sheer amount carried out in the name of the United States are a divisive issue," surmised Geekosystem's Rollin Bishop. That sounds like it fits. Porn isn't the only thing Apple has had a problem with. It showed its willingness to censor more than sex when it took Phone Story, a game that was a commentary on the iPhone industry. Or maybe it's something else. But, again, it doesn't really matter. "From a legal perspective, Apple can do whatever it wants with the content in its App Store," Chen reminds us. 

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So, what recourse do these app makers have, if not legal? Apple explains that they have a review board. Though, after three rejections we don't see much hope for Drones+. Also, they have only hurt their cause more by going to Bonington and Ackerman. Apple hates that kind of publicity. "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps," they wrote in those guidelines. That gives Apple an incredible amount of power, in an attempt to keep incidents like these hushed. If you want to live in Apple's ecosystem, you have to play by its rules apparently.