Last week, the gay-rights group Truth Wins Out celebrated Apple's decision to pull from its store an app by Exodus International, perhaps the best-known "ex-gay" organization in the world. The app, a near mirror of Exodus' website -- including its podcasts, FAQs, blog posts, and news updates -- was removed after a petition circulated on Change.org collected more than 150,000 signatures. "The message Apple is sending here is clear: there is no place for 'ex-gay therapy' on the Apple platform," said a Change.org editor.
But there was another message that also came across: It's Apple's job to police who can see what online.
At 350,000 apps and counting, the Apple apps store can only be described as a huge commercial success; Apple recently hit the 10 billion download mark, and the $10,000 gift card Apple gave the lucky downloader could buy enough cheap software for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches to run several companies -- and perhaps a few small countries. (I'm editing this piece on my iPad using office software that costs $10.) The store is also a major platform for developers: For $99 a year and a 30 percent cut of sales, they get a chance in front of a large audience. It's a shot Exodus no longer has and a decision that's drawn the ire of at least one gay-rights advocate.
A rare voice of dissent in the situation came from Dennis Ayers, the managing editor of the gay site AfterElton.com. For one thing, Ayers wasn't relishing serving up a chance for LGBT activists to be tarred as cultural censors. But more fundamentally, wrote Ayers, "as vehemently as we might disagree with Exodus International's mission and beliefs, we think they should be allowed to express them."
Of course, despite what can look like a great deal of access, Apple mediates that sales experience between developers and the rest of us. It's a model that comports with how Apple does things. The Internet, in its natural state, is messy; Apple is all hospital corners. The framework has done pretty well for the Angry Bird folks, but it doesn't get along so well with an early tenet of the Internet's design: There aren't meant to be meaningful gatekeepers.
Back in the early 1990s, "the thinking was that if people went online, it would be akin to dropping acid for the first time. You'd realize that we're all connected and that we live in a read-write world," says Doug Rushkoff, a leading thinker on Internet culture and a professor at New York University and the New School. "The Net was the alternative to the yuppified, top-down business culture. It was supposed to be this tremendous, bottom-up culture."
As the whole Exodus episode demonstrates, Apple doesn't stop at the standard of serving up only what's legal, as they might. Nor, really, is it just interested in protecting us from what's truly offensive, which is what many of us probably assume is the standard. Nope, Apple curates the app market to keep out stuff it simply doesn't want.
Sure, there's the Potter Stewart test: "We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line," read the app store guidelines, locked behind a wall and accessible only to paid-up developers. "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." But it also has the Thanksgiving-dinner test: "If you want to criticize a religion, write a book." And the professionalization test: "We have lots of serious developers who don't want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour." And the enough-already test: "We don't need any more Fart Apps." And with that, the dream of scores of young developers are crushed.
Of course, Exodus International doesn't make a terrific poster child for concerns about Apple's filtering. For one thing, the group targets kids, something that one LGBT group calls the "third wave" of ex-gay activism -- get 'em while they're young. And Exodus sells its mobile app as something "easily accessible and helpful for today's culture." Gay kids' susceptibility to depression, bullying, and suicide highlights how fraught those situations can already be.
But given that the battle over so-called gay-conversion therapy has more to do with religion and politics than science, the Exodus app battle is really a proxy battle -- gay kids are, after all, far more likely to stumble upon the Exodus website than download its app. And not everyone is comfortable with making Apple's discretion a leverage point in the gay-rights fight. "Does the GLBT community," wrote AfterElton's Ayers, "really want that" -- that is, Apple's "offensive to large groups of people" test -- "to be the standard for what is allowed on Apple's increasingly pivotal app store? How soon until Apple gets a petition to remove Grinder?" -- a geo-social app for finding gay men. "What if the Trevor Project tried to release an app to assist gay teens?"
When it comes to the Internet, Apple is hardly the only gatekeeper in town. Amazon, you might remember, drew condemnation for kicking WikiLeaks off its Web servers after Joe Lieberman suggested it should. And Florida's Dove World Outreach Center got dropped from its Web host after it called for marking September 11 by burning Qurans. But the Web hosting market is robust. A better comparison for Apple might be what happened recently with ICANN, the nonprofit that runs the Internet's naming system. ICANN approved a porn-themed .xxx top-level domain against the objections of several world governments and many technologists. The strongest argument in favor of the approval: ICANN is there just to make sure the Internet functions, not to play culture cop.
Apple, for sure, doesn't produce the only mobile operating system. The more open Google Android has attracted a slightly higher U.S. market share than either Apple or RIM's Blackberry. But we seem to be getting increasingly comfortable with having gatekeepers on the Internet, a sharp jag in its evolutionary path. (For one thing, mobile is exempt from the strictest Net neutrality rules the Federal Communications Commission passed in December.) Looking back at the early Internet, Rushkoff says, "there was this way that when people experienced a genuine decentralized network, all this other stuff came to mind, from open-source democracies to decentralized businesses to new connections to our communities. It was implicit in the Internet experience, and it's just not there anymore."
The people of Egypt, argues Rushkoff, seem at the moment to have a stronger vision of themselves as empowered creators of the digital world they live in than we do in the U.S. Running to Apple to police one corner of the Internet might, down the road, look like winning a battle while losing something bigger.