App Store Moral Battleground: “South Park” Nixed

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Apple may or may not be thinking about it this way, but the iPhone App Store is fast becoming a moral battleground for the gaming and entertainment industry.

Forget the ESRB, forget the MPAA, the new moral authority developers and studios have to contend with is Apple’s App Store reviewers, and they may be setting the bar pretty high, at least judging from a recently publicized rejection. The app denied, in this case, is a “South Park” one (not the original Imaginationland game, which remains available), which would have brought a range of “South Park” content to the iPhone and iPod touch.

The app had been submitted in October 2008, but kicked around the review process for quite some time, actually being rejected twice until its development team finally decided to stop bashing its head against the wall and let the thing die a peaceful death. Apple’s reason for blocking the app, which provided clips, information, and other media for “South Park” fans to use and view on their phones, was that it was “potentially offensive.” Throwing the “potentially” in there is a nice attempt to evade being painted as arbiters of morality, which is just what I’m doing in this article.

Macworld UK points out that full seasons of “South Park” are available uncensored from Apple via iTunes as it is, and can therefore be easily transferred to the iPhone, so refusing to offer clips of the same content via an iPhone app seems a little arbitrary. “South Park” developers said that Apple suggested App Store standards would evolve, just as iTunes standards did (explicit lyrics were originally not allowed), but why should it require a separate evolutionary process? It is, after all, an addition to iTunes, not an altogether different beast.

My big problem with this latest rejection is that Apple is beginning to take on the role of industry councils set up for the purpose, made up of members representing a variety of concerns. Because of the success of the App Store, and since they are able to set the terms of access for developers, they are becoming a private company with the authority of a regulatory board, and as such have undue influence over what does and doesn’t get made. Hopefully the advent of mobile app stores from so many other carriers will force the establishment of some kind of standards governing software in this space, so that Apple can’t keep single-handedly setting the industry tone.

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