The Great Firewall of Apple's App Store

AppStore_iconApple (s aapl) has taken on a seemingly impossible task with the iPhone App Store: policing it for potentially objectionable applications. There are many, many apps that have been forbidden from the store. Some apps go against Apple or AT&T’s (s t) terms of service, contain “questionable” content, or simply serve no purpose — some bans are justified, and some are bewildering.

Whose definition of “objectionable” or “inappropriate” is the company using? Why are farts, which some people find offensive, allowed, but “South Park” isn’t? It’s all so vague and, worse, inconsistent — something we’ve written about for almost a year. Sometimes the company approves apps and then reconsiders; last week, Apple decided to deny the official Google Voice app from the store, and then went back and removed several existing Google Voice apps that had already been approved. That action has caused much controversy, including an FCC investigation. This week, Apple banned Perfect Acumen, a prolific app maker with hundreds of approved apps — all pretty much useless and spammy — on the store. If the apps were ban-worthy, how did more than 900 get onto the store in the first place? Regardless, the App Store is Apple’s turf, and to be in the company’s playground you have to play by its rules, whether we like them or not. Too bad we don’t really know what those rules are.

Here’s a brief and not-at-all exhaustive list of apps that have been banned, held up or changed because of Apple’s App Store rules:

  • Eucalyptus – This e-book reader was rejected because it let users read the Kama Sutra, from Project Gutenberg. Apple decided this was “inappropriate content,” even though the book could easily be read from several other applications on the store, including Amazon’s (s amzn) Kindle app. After extensive media coverage, Apple relented and allowed the app in.
  • NetShare – Apple initially approved this app, which allows users to browse the Internet on their computer through the iPhone’s data connection, but then proceeded to ban it once it got some media attention. Typically, AT&T sells data “tethering” for $60 a month. No tethering apps allowed.
  • Baby Shaker – Some developers are left scratching their heads trying to figure out why their apps got denied, when others get through without an issue. Baby Shaker simulated shaking a baby to death with the accelerometer. Apple quickly pulled the app, but it begs the question: How did this get through the approval process?
  • Perfect Acumen – Sure, Apple might have more 50,000 apps on the store, but 943 of them were from these folks. The developer posted tons of one-subject apps that were little more than glorified RSS readers dedicated to one or two subjects. Economic Crisis Updates, iSoaperStarsUpdates, Top Sexy Women, and more. The apps are all $4.99 and likely cost next to nothing to make. Even if the company only sold a few of each item, it’s still a likely profitable business “model”  — or it was, until Apple banned the entire company, apps and all, from the store.
  • Google Voice – Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application, perhaps the most famous App Store rejection, got the FCC’s attention. The commission sent letters to Apple, Google (s goog) and AT&T to determine how and why the application was rejected from the App Store and if the iPhone maker’s actions were anti-competititve. This story is a long, long way from over. It’s unclear if Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s resignation from the Apple board had anything to do with this, but it can’t have helped.
  • Nine Inch Nails – Trent Reznor submitted a Nine Inch Nails app to the store, but it was denied because of “objectionable content” — in this case, a NIN song titled “The Downward Spiral” that was included in the app. Reznor was furious with Apple because the same song is available, unedited, on the iTunes Music Store. Apple later relented and posted the app.
  • Opera – The Norwegian browser maker, very popular on a number of mobile platforms, designed a version of Opera Mini for the iPhone, but it was rejected because it competes with Apple’s Safari browser and includes a separate JavaScript interpreter — a big no-no for developers.
  • “South Park” – Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind “South Park,” made an iPhone app for their TV show, but “after a couple of attempts to get the [app] approved,” the program was rejected for “potentially offensive” content. In an announcement about the rejection, “South Park” claimed Apple admitted its “standards would evolve,” noting that when iTunes was first launched, there was no music available with explicit lyrics. For now, though, it’s the iPhone that killed Kenny.
  • Pull My Finger – Apple originally rejected the Pull My Finger app because it was “of limited utility” to the community — however, after much deliberation, Apple decided to accept the app. The company noted that it’s “still determining how this new genre of [humor] apps would be handled.” Once it was approved, though, the iPhone community resoundingly voted with their wallets, sending the fart-noise app up the best-seller list. The App Store’s fart apps even made it onto “The Daily Show.”
  • FreedomTime – This app, released last fall, counted down the days until then-President George W. Bush left office. Apple denied the app because it was potentially defamatory or demeaning to a national figure. That may be true, but still, why deny the app? It’s not as bad as some others. The developer even emailed Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the rejection — and received a response! Jobs replied, “Even though my personal political leanings are Democratic, I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers. What’s the point?” What’s the point indeed, Mr. Jobs — what’s the point of rejecting this app?