Friday, August 07, 2009

Blocking a Dictionary for "Objectionable Content"? Is This the Latest App Store Fiasco?

Dictionaries are supposed to contain words, and a complete dictionary will contain even those words deemed somewhat on the racy side, such as this one. While it seemed at first that Apple didn't seem to understand that, at least in this case, there is more to the story than initially thought.

Ninjawords is an iPhone dictionary app. Here's how it's described.
Ninjawords is the simple, fast and deadly dictionary for the iPhone.

Ninjas are three things:
  1. They're smart
  2. They're quick
  3. They're deadly accurate
Ninjawords was built on these principles. We made it because we saw that the low-cost dictionaries on the App Store are slow, cluttered, and all use the same bad data source (WordNet) for their definitions.

Ninjawords takes a different approach. We use awesome, fresh, high quality data with more words and synonyms than you can throw a ninja star at. And best of all, when you look up your words, they all stay on the page. No need to flip back and forth between different pages as you look up multiple words.

Features
-------
  • Works OFFLINE.
  • Spellcheck!
  • Word of the day each time you start the app.
  • Touch to get a random vocabulary word.
  • Recents.
  • Favorites.
  • Thesaurus (each definition has synonyms).
  • Fast like a ninja.
See our website, matchsticksoftware.com, for an in-depth video of Ninjawords in action; you'll love it!

Warning: there's a real ninja lurking in this app. See if you can find him.
The description doesn't warn, however, that certain words deemed objectionable by Apple have been removed, but even with that, the application is required to have a 17+ rating, which seems like overkill. Why censor and add a 17+ rating?

Remember that Section 3.3.12 of the iPhone SDK Agreement states:
"Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple's reasonable judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users."
Initial reports seemed to point to another App Store rejection fiasco, particularly when you looked at the list of words that Apple deemed obscene. Some of the words do indeed have objectionable meanings, but they also have legitimate meanings. Can you imagine a without the word screw? Yes, there's a somewhat objectionable use for it, but it also has a definition that handymen might be interested in.

Other words which were reportedly omitted from Ninjawords which have non-objectionable meanings (as well as objectionable ones) include snatch and cock. Additionally, other dictionaries in the App Store include these types of words. What happened?

While at first glance it might seem that perhaps this particular App Store reviewer needs to get its mind out of the gutter, a response from Phil Schiller, Apple's senior VP of worldwide product marketing to Daring Fireball seems to clarify things quite a bit.

Here's what he said, in part:
Contrary to what you reported, the Ninjawords application was not rejected in the App Store review process for including common “swear” words. In fact anyone can easily see that Apple has previously approved other dictionary applications in the App Store that include all of the “swear” words that you gave as examples in your story.

The issue that the App Store reviewers did find with the Ninjawords application is that it provided access to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable. A quick search on Wiktionary.org easily turns up a number of offensive “urban slang” terms that you won’t find in popular dictionaries such as one that you referenced, the New Oxford American Dictionary included in Mac OS X. Apple rejected the initial submission of Ninjawords for this reason, provided the Ninjawords developer with information about some of the vulgar terms, and suggested to the developer that they resubmit the application for approval once parental controls were implemented on the iPhone.
Further, Schiller pointed out that for Time-to-Market reasons, the developer, rather than awating parental controls, tried to censor the dictionary himself, but left in enough swear words to receive the 17+ rating.

Whoops, there appears to be a disconnect here. This all makes sense now. On the other hand, I think that people would not be so quick to jump down Apple's throat if they made their App Store policies transparent. Let's hope the FCC inquiry in to the Google Voice fiasco (which is a real fiasco) helps in that area.
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