In my last post I raised questions about how Internet technology is disrupting established boundaries between public and private space. Another example that has come to life this week is how technology companies are increasingly becoming gatekeepers for public standards of decency and civility.
CNET reported that Apple removed from its app store an app that produced the text for the Manhattan Declaration under pressure from Change.org who asked that app be removed for "hatred and divisive language" over its stance on same-sex marriage and abortion. Apple justifies their removal of the app on the grounds of it being offensive to a large group of people." If that is Apple's standard it makes it difficult to know what they can allow if it offers any artistic or religious content. Apple is of course not alone in this. Amazon recently removed a "Pedophile Guide" after complaints and threatened boycotts.
Private, for profit news organizations have long had to exercise editorial judgment and locate themselves within the culture's moral and religious space. The New York Times supposedly offers "all the news that's fit to print". Fox is supposedly "fair and balanced". The National Enquirer is the National Enquirer. What does it mean when a company like Apple is not only vetting apps on the basis of fending off business competition or protecting children from inappropriate material but now also making decision about what is hate-speech and what is not?
What surprises me about this announcement is the different ways it can go.
1. Is Apple so culturally clueless so as not to realize that 8,000 complaints is nothing compared to what may be expected as a response not only from those who are sympathetic to the Manhattan Declaration but also from those for whom this kind of editorializing from a publicly traded company seems out of place? I'm sure there are plenty of Bibles in the app store and I know there are many people who find the Bible offensive, as well as the Koran and how many other religious, artistic or political texts. Will all these come out too? You might as well take out the browser.
2. Did Apple hand the folks behind the Manhattan Declaration their biggest early Christmas present imaginable? The document made some waves a while ago when first announced but seems to have become a sleepy little blip in the culture war. Now infused with Apple's cultural clout as an adversary it is likely to make a far larger splash if even negative attention is better than no attention at all.
3. Is Apple taking a stand in the culture war over abortion and same-sex marriage? Are they looking to play in the same arena as the authors of the Manhattan Declaration? If Apple doesn't give in to the 37,000+ (as of the time I'm writing this) petitioners who find the removal of the app objectionable, to me this can only seem to communicate that Apple is declaring its own principle on this subject rather than simply protecting its own bottom line. Steve Jobs is notoriously resistant to public pressure when it comes to his control over his products. Will Steve Jobs now take stands on things beyond how many buttons a phone should have and make those decisions part of his company? Would Job's taking a stand on this mark a watershed moment in these cultural conflicts? Would Apple-product-cool now be associated not just with that glowing white Apple on the back of the all aluminum Macbook Pro but also political and religious positions?
I can still remember the first time I heard the phrase "all of life is religious." The truth of this might now be starting to dawn on Steve Jobs.