Apple censors the dictionary

Once again, a software company reveals its power over our access to information by making a dumb decision.   This time, Apple rejected a dictionary application, Ninjawords, because it included words Apple deemed inappropriate.

According to an interview by John Gruber with Ninjawords developer Phil Crosby, Apple refused to upload Ninjawords to the iTunes store until a number of “objectionable” words had been removed.  Besides “fuck,” “shit,” and various other four-letter ones, words that Apple ordered eliminated include “ass,” “cock,” and “screw.”  Even without these entries, Ninjawords is still a 17+ application!

This is isn’t the first time Apple has gone out of its way to search prospective apps for potentially offensive content.  In May, Apple refused to approve the e-book reader Eucalyptus because the Kama Sutra is among the books it makes available for download (After complaints, Apple reversed its position).  The same month, Apple turned down the app “Me So Holy,” which allows you to paste your face over depictions of religious figures (Also now available).  When we covered that censorship on this blog, we asked, “What’ll be next?”

Apparently, the English dictionary.  As Gruber points out on his blog, we’re talking about a reference book available in every classroom in the country.  Apple’s extraordinarily stringent, and seemingly arbitrary, process to decide what content is “appropriate” for iPhone users overreaches the level of authority any company should exercise.  The 17+ rating system can and should stand on its own as a tool for parents to police their own children’s application use.  With any other censorship, Apple simply insults the maturity and intelligence of its customers.

UPDATE 8/6:  Today on his blog, Gruber posts a note he received from Apple senior VP Phil Schiller, explaining, in short, that Apple did not ask Ninjawords to censor its app.  Instead, they refused to accept it while no 17+ designation yet existed, but Ninjawords itself took out the offending words in order to be up on the market more quickly.  Schiller also wrote that Apple originally rejected Ninjawords, which uses Wiktionary as a source, because it included terms that were “more vulgar” than the standard curse words found in “traditional” dictionaries–that is, certain “urban slang” terms.

Ninjawords noted that the existence of the rating system encourages all app developers to self-censor; that’s true, but we can, for better or worse, say the same of film producers who dread to be branded with R or NC-17.   And while the difference between “too vulgar” and “kind of vulgar” is very hazy, at least Apple doesn’t seem to have asked anyone to take “ass” out of the dictionary.  Ninjawords did that themselves.

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Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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