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What Apple’s new App Store rules mean for news orgs: Some new clarity, but still plenty of fuzziness

After loads of criticism for unexplained decisions, inscrutable rules, and what appeared to be a desire to protect the public’s morals and the feelings of the powerful, Apple has decided to finally state what the rules are for getting your app accepted into the App Store for iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches. (The change comes packaged with another shift of interest to many developers: allowing them to use non-Apple tools to code their applications.)

Developers have had many complaints about what had been a highly opaque process, but from the perspective of journalists, there were two complaints that trumped all. First, Apple seemed leery about criticism of public officials. As we reported, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore had his iPhone app rejected because it made fun of public figures — a task in the first sentence of any editorial cartoonist’s job description. And second, Apple seemed eager to play morality police, rejecting apps from legitimate news outlets that dared to show a nipple or otherwise titillate beyond Apple’s boundaries.

Now, for the first time, we have actual language from Apple on what’s allowed and what’s not. Not always precise language, but language. On the first point of satire and criticism, here’s Apple’s rule:

Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way will be rejected

Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary

As a practical matter, that exemption lets just about any news organization or working journalist off the hook on charges of being too satirical/cruel/malicious. As we’ve seen a number of editorial-cartoon apps get rejected then approved, I suspect this rule was already in place inside Apple.

But the future-of-journalism pundit inside me can’t help but get riled up whenever someone starts trying to separate political speakers into “professionals” and everyone else. Particularly since that first clause is so broadly defined. So a professional columnist or cartoonist can say nasty things about Obama, but Joe Citizen can’t? Defining who is a “professional” when it comes to opinion-sharing is sketchy enough, but when it includes political speech and the defining is being done by overworked employees of a technology company, it’s odious.

As for the second issue, “objectionable” content:

Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected

Clear, right? Actually, there’s some additional narrative language on the same subject:

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”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

Unsurprisingly, though, different people see different lines. And while mainstream news organizations in the United States are unlikely to be crossing whatever Apple’s line is (cue “This is a family newspaper!”), there are any number of legitimate online publications that could. So Potter Stewart‘s quote ends up being another way to dodge specifics. And as with the satire question, the line gets drawn between the respectable pros and the rest in the rabble.

Finally, there’s one more element in the new guidelines that will be of interest to nonprofit news organizations. As our friend Jake Shapiro at PRX has written, Apple’s policy on seeking donations through iPhone apps leaves a lot to be desired from the nonprofit’s point of view — in part because the rules were never clear. Here’s what they are now:

Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free

The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS

The first element could impact apps like This American Life’s, which costs $2.99 — although it has asked for donations via push notifications, which may not fall under “the ability to make donations.” But it’s the second line that’s the complaint for nonprofits. Rather than kick a potential donor into a web browser, they’d like to be able to accept a gift directly within the app, using Apple’s one-click payment system. That’s the way in-app purchases (like buying extra features in an app or levels in a game) happens. Apple’s new rules don’t change anything about that policy.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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