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Apple says no to iPhone apps as political attack ads

May 24, 2010 | 12:39 pm

Here's a good political-philosophy question: In a conflict between property rights and free speech, which constitutional privilege should prevail?

CNet's Declan McCullagh raised the point recently in a blog post about Malibu Republican congressional candidate Ari David's battle with Apple. The iCensors at Apple blocked an iPhone app that David wanted to distribute that criticized the Democratic incumbent in California's 30th Congressional District, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). The company told David's campaign that the app was rejected for violating its rules against defamatory content.

The app displays a series of messages about Waxman's record in Congress. The supposedly objectionable excerpts that David posted on his site don't strike me as defamatory, at least not in the context of a political campaign. They're all opinions about actions that Waxman really has taken.

For example, one of the messages says Waxman "TRIED TO STRANGLE family farms with insane Soviet-Style regulation," a reference to the congressman's support for a bill to combat food-borne E. coli outbreaks with more food-production rules, inspections and, potentially, recalls. Some folks might appreciate the government's attention to that problem, but then, spinach isn't for everyone.

David attacked Apple in a blog post Monday, noting that the company had approved applications that display "irrational quotes from the Bible" and provide a multimedia biography of Che Guevara but blocked one that offered controversial excerpts from the Koran. His conclusion? "If you are a lefty, a commie, a radical muslim, an enviro-statist greenie or a Democrat party candidate with socialist/statist leanings that you wish to share far and wide, then have at it and create something for the itunes app store. But if you are a conservative who possesses dangerous notions like you love America, worship a just and forgiving God or are in support of our troops when they go to war against the enemies of free people, Apple says you need not apply."

I think the explanation is simpler. If you forcefully express opinions in an app, Apple may ask you to take your business elsewhere. Steve Jobs' prime directive, as he made clear in his e-mail battle with Valleywag's Ryan Tate over Apple blocking iPad porn apps (as well as his tiff with Adobe over the latter's Flash technology), is to give users of Apple products the best experience possible. That means deterring app developers from not only causing technical problems but also offending users. To Apple, this is a strategic approach to a competitive marketplace, as Jobs explains to Tate:

It's not about freedom, it's about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users. Users, developers and publishers can do whatever they like - they don't have to buy or develop or publish on iPads if they don't want to.

Personally, I think Apple should allow any compatible application on the iPhone as long as it's designed to perform a legal function. But even though I disagree with Apple's choices, I also think it's Apple's prerogative to decide what software can run on the products it sells. It doesn't have a monopoly in mobile phones or tablet computers, so there's no reason for the government to regulate. There's no free speech issue here because Apple isn't the government and it doesn't have the power to silence people. And until I can make a more successful product than the iPhone, my judgment about the wisdom of Apple's strategy is probably worth no more than you're paying for it.

Meanwhile, maybe David could develop an app that gives a multimedia presentation of his own life story, or accurately displays quotes from his four GOP primary opponents.

-- Jon Healey

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