Controversy continues to brew over Apple’s ability to “gatekeep” applications which are or are not approved in the official App Store for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Writing for TechCrunch yesterday in the article, “Steve Jobs Reiterates: ‘Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,'” MG Siegler cites an alleged email from Steve Jobs in which he wrote:

Fiore’s app will be in the store shortly. That was a mistake. However, we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone.

I need to emphasize the above “quotation” is an ALLEGED quotation from Steve Jobs. TechCruch writer Siegler includes email header/IP information which supports the legitimacy / authenticity of the email, but it remains officially unconfirmed. (I also fixed a typo in the quotation, changing “and” to “an” at the end.)

What IS confirmed today in multiple contexts is that Apple continues to “gatekeep” the approval of applications which are in the official Apple App Store. This is controversial, but overall I think it’s a good idea. Here’s why.

Organizations and individuals who assert a “moral responsibility” today are naturally contentious. We live in a world in which some press for an elimination of all boundaries, and a removal of all limits. In a civilized and moral society, we need boundaries and limits. This is true at a societal level and at an individual level. See my January 2009 post, “Iran, Sovereignty, Colonialism and the Values of the West” for more background on this. When people in the Arab world look at the United States as “the great satan,” they are (at least to a degree) viewing “The West” as villainous and evil because of a perceived LACK of all moral boundaries. Frank Viviano’s article “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom on Edge” for National Geographic in October 2003 highlights this in much greater detail than I’ll do in this post today.

I am glad Apple is doing two things with respect to application censorship, gatekeeping, and parental controls:

  1. There are applications which Apple is simply not approving to be in the official App store, because of its apparent moral stance against things like pornography.
  2. Apple has provided some parental control / content restriction options for iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads which permit users to have SOME control over applications which can be purchased / downloaded. (All apps in the App Store can still be VIEWED, however, regardless of the parental control settings which are enabled. I’ll explain this in detail below.)

I certainly wouldn’t want the official Apple App Store to become a sewer of pornographic content. From a corporate profit standpoint, I’m sure that scenario would not sit well with stockholders because it wouldn’t be positively received by many consumers. It’s reasonable to speculate there are both moral and financial reasons for Apple to continue gatekeeping apps. That said, I think it’s also great Apple is gatekeeping because of the large-scale experimental comparision shaping up between the Apple App Store and the Google Android Store / Android Market. Google is apparently NOT gatekeeping apps in the same way Apple is. What will be the result? Will Google provide tools and mechanisms to keep potentially objectionable apps hidden from eyes which either do not want to see, or whose parents/guardians/teachers do not want them to see and use, those applications? Time will tell. An important experiment involving digital ethics is underway, and the results are (and will be) visible for everyone to judge independently.

Organizations and corporations, like individuals, SHOULD be permitted to define their own limits and boundaries. This is called FREEDOM. Freedom is a good thing. Freedom has up sides and down sides, but on the whole I think we should support the right of entities to determine and enforce limits / boundaries.

With this philosophic perspective in mind, I’d like to next examine what “parental controls” on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad currently enable users to do or not do in terms of limits. This is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about since Spring Break, when my 12 year old son commented in a podcast I published here that he’d seen some “weird” apps in the Apple App Store. We had a follow-up conversation in which he shared with me what he meant by “weird,” and I think these findings should be of interest to any parent or educator who has children and/or students using iPod Touches or other Apple devices. All of the screenshots I’ll be using below in this post are aggregated in a Flickr Set. These were taken on my iPhone on April 10, 2010, running the iPhone 3.1.2 firmware.

By default, an iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad does NOT have “parental controls” or “restrictions” enabled. This means “anything goes.”

Default iPhone Parental Controls: No Retrictions

Step one to using parental controls is clicking SETTINGS, GENERAL, RESTRICTIONS, and clicking ON. Restrictions can then be selected by application (for the default Apple-provided apps) and by CONTENT, using available rating systems. The screenshots below show default values for NO restrictions, when restrictions have simply been turned ON but none selected individually.

Apple Apps can be restricted on the iPhone / iPod Touch

iPhone / iPod Touch Parental Controls: Options for Restrictions

Default on iPhone Parental Controls: Allow all apps

It is important for parents and educators to realize that although Apple has not (and apparently is not going to) allow pornographic applications into the official App Store, there ARE applications which have sexual themes in the store. Some of these can be found in the GAMES category, as you can see from the following screenshot taken of the “top free games” tab in the App Store on April 10th. (Note the same screen shows the popular “Words with Friends” game – this is one game my wife enjoys playing on her iPhone. Ironic juxtaposition here.)

Games Category: Top Free Games

Sexually-themed apps are also available currently in the “entertainment” category of the Apple App store:

"Entertainment" apps in the Apple App Store

Entertainment Apps in Apple App Store

In experimenting with parental controls / content restrictions for the iPhone / iPod Touch, the BIGGEST SURPRISE to me was that even after restrictions are selected, applications OUTSIDE the approved content categories REMAIN VISIBLE on the iPhone / iPod Touch. They simply can’t be purchased / downloaded. The apps are still there, however, INCLUDING app reviews. Some examples are below.

For this experiment, I chose to ALLOW iPhone / iPod Touch applications rated “12+” and below. Apps rated “17+” (adult/mature) were therefore “restricted.”

iPhone Parental Controls: Allow Apps rated 12+ and lower

I chose a similar setting for movies, permitting those rated “PG-13” and lower. “R” and “NC-17” movies were therefore restricted:

iPhone Parental Controls: Allow Movies rated PG-13 and lower

The screenshot below was taken AFTER parental controls were enabled on an iPhone. Note an app rated “17+” is still VISIBLE:

With parental controls enabled, apps outside permitted approved age ranges are still VISIBLE

Because parental controls / content restrictions are enabled for this app’s content rating, however, the buttons to purchase (free) and download these app are greyed out / not available:

With parental controls enabled, apps outside the approved age range are visible but cannot be purchased _ downloaded

Playboy app in Apple App Store (Entertainment category) - not downloadable because of selected parental controls / restrictions

69 Sex Positions App in Apple App Store (Entertainment category)

Hopefully in a future firmware release, Apple will update its parental controls / content restrictions system so these applications are NOT VISIBLE AT ALL in the store. If an Apple application is restricted / blocked on an iPhone or iPod Touch, that icon is removed from the device entirely and not available. The same should hold true for apps in the store which do NOT meet selected content authorization guidelines.

Since these “non-authorized” applications are still VISIBLE on an iPhone or iPod Touch even when content restrictions have been enabled, it is important to realize the APPLICATION REVIEWS are also visible. The content in these reviews can (at times) certainly fall into the categories, “objectionable” and “disruptive to student learning in the classroom.”

Reviews of "Sex Positions" Apple iPhone App

In summary, I think Apple is not only within their legal rights to gatekeep / restrict applications which are approved for the iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad platforms, they are also rightly taking the moral high ground. I am glad Apple provides some parental control / content restriction options for these devices, but as noted above I think there are important issues which still need to be improved / addressed.

The larger issues of open content and accessibility are certainly connected to this conversation, and I am an advocate for both. It will be interesting and instructive to watch how the Google Android Store / Android Market addresses these issues, including parental controls / content restrictions. Ultimately we DO have a responsibility to prepare our children and our students “to be the filter” when it comes to content in the world. That said, it’s also reasonable to have limits and controls over what they see when they browse an application category like, “top free games.”

It’s also important (I contend) to maintain basic levels of content filtering on home Internet networks as well as at school / in the library. See the OpenDNS for Households page for more information and tutorials about one way to configure FREE home network content filtering. I’ve addressed this in the following past posts:

  1. The Value of OpenDNS (free) content filtering at home (March 2008)
  2. Reflections on home content filtering and OpenDNS after a year of use (January 2009)
  3. Setting up a basic content filter for free at granddaddy’s house (May 2009)
  4. Successful New Home Router Configuration for Videoconferencing, Dynamic DNS and OpenDNS Content Filtering (June 2009)

Lots of important issues have been raised here. What are your thoughts, and where do you stand in these debates?

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4 Responses to iPhone / iPod Touch Parental Controls, Digital Ethics, Open Access, and Apple as App Gatekeeper

  1. Online Colleges says:

    It wouldn’t matter to me if they allowed or didn’t allow certain apps on the iPad (not that I’m running out to buy the iPad, but hypothetically speaking, if I *did* have one). However, I think this would matter a lot more if I had a child that wanted to use an iPad. It’s better to set the restrictions and not worry about it than to “trust” your child and leave their searching open to their curiosity and imagination.

  2. I don’t really see what the big deal is when you consider that Safari is the app that allows access to all this content anyway. It seems a bit like filtering in schools. It doesn’t really help or solve the real problem of inappropriate content and what it does to us and our kids.

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    Well, just because objectionable content is available via the web/Safari, I don’t think it should necessarily be available via the App store. Or at a minimum there should be a way to opt out of seeing that content…. If my kids are going to the Apple App store and clicking on “top free games,” it seems reasonable they shouldn’t see porn apps there.

  4. John Weidner says:

    It’d be nice if there was something like the web site filtering that you can enable with OpenDNS for app stores. Android is a very open system and I suspect that someone could build this for Android phones. But only Apple would be able to build this for iPhone/iPad/iPod.

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