When it comes to not selling potentially ojectionable content, Apple's philosophy seems to be "do as I say, not as I do."--
A furor erupted on the Internet on Tuesday--not that it takes very much--when comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan announced that the latest issue in his series Sagawould not be available for purchase via the Comixology app, due to explicit sexual images that Apple had allegedly deemed objectionable. This despite the fact that the series had previously contained other images of a graphic nature that had not caused objections.
However, as Vaughan himself noted on the website of his publisher, Image Comics, "you might be able to find SAGA #12 in Apple's iBookstore, which apparently sometimes allows more adult material to be sold than through its apps. Crazy, right?"
I was able to confirm on Wednesday that the issue in question is available from the iBookstore, even though as of this writing, it still cannot be purchased via the Comixology app, though customers can buy it from Comixology's website and have it synced to their iOS devices.
Why the distinction? It's likely that the iBookstore and App Store maintain separate review teams, and that they don't necessarily coordinate with each other on issues of this sort. But it still illustrates the fact that there are two distinct policies at play here, and they are inconsistent.
In the past, Apple has tried to maintain a "family friendly" atmosphere in the App Store. Steve Jobs famously laid down "no porn" as one of the cornerstones of the storefront when it was announced in 2008. Since then, the company has made a point of quickly removing adult content when it has occasionally made its way into the store. Even the venerable Playboy has bowed to Apple, and offers a version of its publication without nudity.
More recently, though, Apple's found itself having to police issues of user-generated-content. Apps like Vine or 500px have found themselves under fire from Apple when it was found that they could be used to access porn. After its removal, 500px was reinstated with a 17+ rating; Vine likewise had its age rating revised from 12+ to 17+.
But Comixology already has a 17+ age restriction, which means both that a warning is provided when its purchased, and access to it can be denied using iOS's built-in restrictions. By comparison, the offending issue of Saga in the iBookstore had no ratings at all when I downloaded it this morning. I've reached out to Apple for a comment on the matter, but as of this writing have not heard back.
The App Store review process has long been regarded as a capricious gauntlet for developers to run. While its rules are public, they are oftentimes vague and subject to the interpretation of individual reviewers--which may be what happened in the case of Saga--but there is only limited recourse for developers who want to appeal their app's removal.
As a retailer, Apple certainly has the right to choose not to sell material that it finds objectionable. However, that's not what's happening here: In fact, Apple is denying a third-party the opportunity to sell content that Apple itself is selling.
If Apple is that concerned about adult content reaching kids, I'd argue should put the emphasis on educating parents about iOS's quite effective mechanisms for preventing kids from accessing adult material.
I'm not suggesting that Apple should open the floodgates to pornography and adult content, but it's clear that the App Store review process is badly in need of an overhaul, and that the company should align its policies for its various storefronts.
In his capacity as senior vice president of Internet software and services, Apple exec Eddy Cue oversees both the iTunes Store, App Store, and iBookstore, so the ball would seem to be in his court regarding standardizing the content allowed there. But it's not as if either the iBookstore or iTunes Store shy away from explicit content: You can find Fifty Shades of Grey in the former, and plenty of R-rated films for purchase and rent in the latter. Why should apps--especially third-party ones--be any different?
Updated at 8 a.m. PT to clarify purchasing via Comixology's website.