Apple and Censoring Education

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Yesterday, Dan Cohen’s tweet about the iPad and censorship, got me thinking about a drawback to the iPad for education argument.



What Dan made me wonder/realize is that by using iPads for educational purposes schools, both higher ed and secondary/primary ed, would be opening themselves up to censorship by Apple. In other words as I tweeted this morning:



Consider, that Apple’s track record here is not all that great. The way currently the App Store is administered, applications have to receive approval from Apple to be listed. Now supposedly this was initially done for quality assurance purposes (to make sure apps won’t crash your device) and in limited cases to insure that apps don’t duplicate existing core apps (listening to music, email) or interfere with AT&Ts money interest. But as the app store developed Apple extended their approval process into the role of censorship. From Apple’s Program License Agreement:

“Applications may be rejected if they contain content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.”

So, Apple might block anything that in their reasonable judgement they think is “obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.” This as far as I am concerned is a dangerous situation, Apple as moral censor. Now certainly it is within their legal rights to do so, but the question is whether or not it is a good idea for us to enter this contract (and by us I mean both users and developers).

Most famously this restriction affected developers of “pornographic content” with Wobble being one of the more hyped, removed, reinstated apps. This also means that the range of iPhone sex apps must have stick figures rather than more illustrative pictures. So, say for instance you are teaching a course on human sexuality, or a sex education course, is Apple going to restrict what you can and can’t do with the iPad content wise?

Okay you might be thinking this is a liminal case, teaching sex in schools is always a touchy subject and Apple will be necessarily treading on shaky ground here. I think most people probably feel no threat from Apple as long as they limit their censorship to “pornographic content,” but as their policy indicates it extends further than that. There is political content that Apple not only would be willing to censor, but has already censored. (Worried yet?) The at this point most famous case of political censorship by Apple is of Mark Fiore, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons. His app was censored by Apple. Now upon him winning the Pulitzer his app has subsequently been made available, but a situation where someone has to win a major award to overcome Apple’s censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as conducive to intellectual discourse.

Now consider the possible futures. Will Apple censor political apps that one might want to use in your classroom? What happens when Apple goes international with the iPad in education movement? Will the German laws restricting what can and can’t be said about Nazism limit what content Apple makes available? What about in China? Currently this is not an issue because the devices we use are independent from the content (or at least with respect to most computers), the company doesn’t get a say in how I use their device.

This initially might not seem like a big concern, for as many people pointed out on Twitter today, Apple is not going to censor documents that one accesses on the iPad, Apple only restricts what applications you can run on their devices. So presumably one could buy an ebook reader app for the iPad and run any Textbook that is published in ePub through the reader, Apple will have no say in the matter.

But as Dan’s Tweet points out this is a concern. For in the first place many books are published as apps so they will not get a work around. Especially with regard to textbooks which are likely to be published as apps requiring updates every year, following the software leasing model, rather than purchase a song model (textbook industries will love this as it yields greater revenue). Or as many of the educational materials people use will be “rich textbooks” not just ebooks, but packaged content with videos, quizzes, and “interactive content” so just publishing to .epub or .pdf won’t constitute a work around. Imagine the scenario where you want to include this M.I.A. video in your course content about police state violence, and racial profiling. (YouTube already removed this video, so it is not to far fetched too imagine Apple would deem it too violent.)

But take this even a step further, beyond “bookish” content, there is a range of material that I would want to make available to my class which Apple might chose to ban (and I am not even talking about the illegal stuff here). Consider, I have (and probably will continue to) teach Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Clearly this is content someone might find “obscene” or “defamatory” how do I know what Apple’s judgement on this is going to be? Is this really a decision I want to turn over to Apple? Indeed by allowing a locked down device into the classroom, especially if one makes it the center piece of a technology in the classroom movement this is precisely what will happen. Apple will have control over what type of content students can place on these devices.

I realize, as many pointed out on Twitter, that this is a decision many school boards already make, censoring course material, believe me I live in Texas, I get it. But there is something substantially different about a community deciding what is and is not appropriate for its students, and a corporation making these decisions. And, for higher ed, where we are not subject to the same school board politics, this would certainly be accepting a larger set of restrictions than we are used to. Again having one corporation serve as a media hub for both software, hardware, and now content, strikes me as a future we ought to resist.

(I need a “Just Say No to iPad in Education” banner.)