NiN's Rob Sheridan on iPhone Application Rejection

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In this interview with Rob Sheridan (@rob_sheridan), Nine Inch Nails’ Artistic Director, Rob discusses the experience of getting the rejection letter from Apple, and what effect it has on the band’s plans to build community applications on the iPhone platform. You’ll hear Sheridan express an uneasiness that Apple can act as judge and jury without providing any transparency into the approval process. Rob spoke with me from Florida where Nine Inch Nails is getting ready for a tour with Jane’s Addiction that kicks off on May 9th in Tampa, FL.

What is a headlining, often controversial industrial rock band to do when nameless censors at Apple decide that content downloaded by an iPhone application contains “objectionable content”? Yesterday, the world found out, as Trent Reznor (@trent_reznor) tweeted:


When a band like NiN encounters arbitrary censorship, they raise the issue in the public forum. In this case Trent Reznor tweeted and blogged about the issue expressing his dissatisfaction with the decision and drawing attention to the fact that the “objectionable content” in question is a song named “The Downward Spiral” currently available via the iTunes store. While comparing Apple’s obscenity standards to Walmart’s war against profanity, Reznor pointed to similar inconsistencies in a previous round of censorship:

I can understand if you want the moral posturing of not having any ‘indecent’ material for sale–but you could literally turn around 180 degrees from where the NIN record would be and purchase the film ‘Scarface’ completely uncensored, or buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto where you can be rewarded for beating up prostitutes. How does that make sense?

While Apple’s rejection of an application based on arbitrary and inconsistent standards, is nothing new, the attention being paid to this particular rejection is significant and could prompt Apple to add more structure and transparency to the iPhone application approval process. On Monday, Aidan Malley of AppleInsider reported that Apple may be prepared to allow explicit content with the introduction of more capable parental controls in the iPhone 3.0 OS update.

If you are wondering what all the fuss is about, here is a walkthrough of the NIN:access application from Trent Reznor and Rob Sheridan which was posted by the ninofficial YouTube user:

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  • Falafulu Fisi

    Timothy said…
    You’ll hear Sheridan express an uneasiness that Apple can act as judge and jury without providing any transparency into the approval process.

    That’s because of a fundamental inalienable rights to one’s own property that Apple is exercising, ie, property rights. Applet can choose whatever it likes to do with what is rightfully theirs. If users don’t like it, then don’t use it. Once doesn’t have a right to what others own or demand to get access to those things which are not theirs. Geez, when are people going to wake up and understand this very simple principle or rights to one’s own property?

    For us commentators who come here to read this blog, we all understand that we have no say in how Tim O’Reilly runs this site, ie, we the readers have no rights to demand Tim to do certain things just because us (readers) wanted him to. It is Tim’s choice to do those things requested by readers or just ignore them, but at the end, readers here must understand that they don’t have rights to demand Tim to comply with their wishes, period.

  • Falafulu Fisi – First, your comparison to the blog is a pretty poor one. Apple’s created a marketplace, through which developers are able to sell (or freely make available, as in the NIN case) applications. The iPhone is a platform. This blog is a service.

    Second, you can’t completely argue that what we’re talking about is Apple’s property. I have an iPhone. Are you saying it belongs to Apple? Because I paid for it. I’m going to say it’s mine. Or are you arguing that the Store is their property? That *may* be, but they sure wouldn’t get far without all the content that others are selling through the Store.

    The issue that troubles me here is that Apple has offered up it’s App marketplace to developers. Apple advertises to users against the App Store quite heavily, and its viewed as a selling point. But on the other hand, Apple’s lack of transparency around the approval process makes it very difficult for developers to know what the fate will be for all their hard work.

    It may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right. Apple is acting like Big Brother, and Trent Reznor is guilty of Appcrime.

  • @Falafulu Fisi, no one is arguing with Apple’s right to control a private Platform, but it is well within reason for people to call attention to the arbitrary, often inconsistent, standards they are attempting to enforce. As we continue to cede more of our essential public fora to private ownership, corporations such as Apple are going to have to make efforts to create governance structures that involve the public they intend to serve. For us to just blithely accept this form of censorship without question because “it is Apple’s property to do with as it wants” is the sort of weak surrender that will usher in an age in which our corporations define our culture’s decency (if that hasn’t already happened).

    Apple would be best served to apply at least a patina of governance on this Platform.

  • @Tim O’Brien: corporations will never define our culture’s decency; we as consumers define our culture’s decency by what we are willing to accept from corporations.

  • @Tim O’Brien: Remember that what’s being sold is also being sold essentially with Apple’s name on it. It’s no different than when Wal-mart or Target decide a movie is a little too racy and quit carrying it. Even if Apple isn’t really producing the application, there’s no denying that some people will associate the content with them.

    While I may disagree with Apple’s reasoning for not carrying this application, it does have the right to make business decisions about what is appropriate. And yes, it IS a business decision. Will an app make enough money to justify spending money fighting off “family values” goups? In this case, Apple didn’t seem to think so.

    At any rate, I suppose we can both agree on one thing: the only way to stop the madness is to make Apple lose money with decisions like these. If you dislike decisions like these, quit spending money at the app store. If you’re not doing that, you have no right to complain.

  • To me, the issue is not that Apple declined the app. It’s that the only way to get apps on non-hacked iPhones is via the App Store.

    I’m an Android advocate, and the App Store exclusivity is one of the reasons I made the choice I did ~15 months ago. It is possible, though less likely, that the Android Market might also decline to list the NiN app. However, NiN could still distribute the app, through their own Web site or through third party markets. There are no such options for non-hacked iPhones, near as I can tell — it is App Store or bust.

    I’m perpetually astonished as to how much of a free pass Apple gets for this. Suppose that, with the release of Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft decreed that not only will have its own app sales portal, but that the only way to distribute apps to WM 6.5 devices is via that portal. Lots of people would raise the warnings about monopolies and antitrust.

    This is one of the reasons I beg developers to sell their Android apps through multiple channels — I don’t want Android Market to become an effective monopoly.

  • Tim

    @Josh Williams, Apple has chosen to create an App marketplace. Developers can chose whether or not they wish to participate. I see the following in the iPhone SDK:

    (f) Applications developed using the Apple Software may only be distributed if selected by Apple (in its sole discretion) for distribution via the App Store or for limited distribution on Registered Devices (ad hoc distribution) as contemplated in this Agreement

    Seems pretty clear to me. For example, if someone wanted to develop an app to provide adult content and Apple won’t allow it, that is their prerogative. If the developer has any doubt as to the acceptability of their app, it is incumbent upon them to ask seek clarity from Apple. If the developer is foolish enough to develop an app without understanding that it may be a waste of their time then that’s their fault, not Apple’s.

    In this particular case, I do think it is a fair question to ask Apple what specifically be done to meet their requirements. As the article suggests, perhaps there are better parental controls coming.

  • we will understand that we have no say in how Tim O’Reilly runs this site Apple is acting like Big Brother.

  • SM was fighting Apple to legalize jailbreaking (not for piracy), EFF said: “If a customer is unhappy with the limited options at Wal-Mart, she can easily go across the street to another store with a better selection. But in this case, a customer wanting access to uncensored content for her iPhone would have no where else to go, thanks to Apple’s policy of locking up the iPhone and blocking all unapproved applications. It’s as if Wal-Mart was the only place to buy music.”

    In the worst case, Apple rejected Opera browser because it competes Safari, at last, Apple will get sued for anti-trust like what Microsoft had.

  • One thing folks should keep in mind, a corporation can’t just do anything it wants.

    When you file articles of incorporation, you are evading personal liability for your business. This comes with a price.

    Many aspects of the business must become public (in a public corporation), the government can impose more regulation than with a sole-proprietorship. When filing articles of incorporation, you are supposed to state what public benefit results.

    Now, the way the store is, doesn’t fall into regulation but, they could find themselves up open to it.

    If the business was a private corporation or a sole-proprietorship yea, they can do anything. But, Apple is a public corporation. They need to be responsible to the public.

  • Gary

    People think this specific rejection was about “objectionable content”?
    Now I am not gonna talk about product and all of us are aware that there has been ongoing complaints from developers that have raised legitimate concerns about the approval process.
    Rob and Trent are as smart as they come and from what I heard they had the pre-qualifying meetings and were initially approved.
    Anyways, it’s real nice to NOT to have anyone between you and your favorite music!