BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the early 1920s, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice declared the James Joyce novel Ulysses obscene, and the book was banned. Ninety years later, Apple did the same. This month, the App Store rejected a graphic novel adaptation of Ulysses, called Ulysses “Seen,” because several panels contained images with really vague nudity. It took the U.S. courts about 12 years to reverse its ban last century, and it took Apple, well, about a week or so. But the case underscores the growing frustration many feel over Apple’s seemingly mercurial censorship decisions. Jad Abumrad is the host of NPR’s Radiolab, a fascinating show about all things science. It has a very popular podcast. Jad, can you tell me how not too long ago Apple took a little bite out of Radiolab?
JAD ABUMRAD: [LAUGHS] Well, I actually only discovered this a couple days ago. Someone ran into my office and told me, do you know that they're censoring your sperm show?
[BROOKE LAUGHS] We did a, we did a show on sperm, which was a very – I wouldn't call it PG, but it was a very tame version that looked at all kinds of interesting things relating to sperm. And so I went onto uh, the iTunes description, and it was, in fact, censored, although it says– would you call this censored, Brooke? It said S.P.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Asterisk S – [LAUGHS]
JAD ABUMRAD: Asterisk, asterisk M.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING]
JAD ABUMRAD: And I had thought, actually, that we had done that. I remember when we were making the sperm show, I would do that in my emails because the spam filter that mediates our email communications, if it sees the word “sperm” it would put it in the junk mail. And so, I thought we had done it. I didn't even realize Apple had done it. So -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sperm is a dirty word?
JAD ABUMRAD: Sperm apparently is a dirty word.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. [LAUGHS]
[JAD LAUGHS] Thanks, Jad.
JAD ABUMRAD: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jad Abumrad, host of NPR’s Radiolab. So, do we want Steve Jobs to act as a de facto V-chip for users of Apple products, adult users of Apple products? DailyFinance media columnist Jeff Bercovici has followed some of the more prominent cases. Jeff, welcome to On the Media.
JEFF BERCOVICI: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier I made a reference to how James Joyce’s Ulysses, at least in graphic novel form, fared on Apple. Now let's talk about another one. This one was a graphic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and it was also briefly banned by Apple. How come?
JEFF BERCOVICI: The reason it was banned was there were some panels that had drawings of gay men - kissing. I think they were actually imaginary. They were in sort of thought bubbles, but there were pictures of gay men kissing and in various sexual positions. And Steve Jobs, or whoever is in charge of this, anticipated that it might be offensive to some of their users.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The graphic novel Importance of Being Earnest, like the James Joyce Ulysses, was briefly censored and then uncensored. What happened?
JEFF BERCOVICI: What happened was the creators objected. They wanted to know why their app had been censored. And then when some human being actually went and looked at it again, they determined that, in fact, it had artistic merit; it wasn't pornography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't human beings look at it in all these cases? I could see have certain key words getting automatically expurgated, but don't humans have to look at pictures?
JEFF BERCOVICI: They do, but there are tens of thousands of apps submitted that they have to consider, and it seems like they are giving only the most sort of cursory consideration to what’s coming in and then only really looking at it once somebody raises a flag. It seems like the default here is to flag something if anybody might object to it, rather than to wait until somebody actually does object to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about topless women.
JEFF BERCOVICI: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously -
JEFF BERCOVICI: Let’s. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] - much of what Apple has censored involves not just illustrated nudity, drawn nudity, like in graphic novels, but actual nudity. A couple of big German publications have felt Apple’s censorship knife in the past year.
JEFF BERCOVICI: Yes. Bild and Stern, two pretty prominent German publications, both of them had their apps blocked for a while because of this. Stern had sort of an erotic photo gallery, whereas with Bild they had an app where you could shake the phone and a woman’s clothing would fall off. And Apple didn't like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, we should say that, despite what you've just described, Bild and Stern are both major publications. These aren't marginal girly mags.
JEFF BERCOVICI: Oh, they're huge. And this is something that, you know, Americans who aren't terribly familiar with European publications might be a little surprised by, but nudity there is fairly mainstream compared to how it would be. I mean, you would never open USA Today and see a topless girl but you can open The Sun in England and they have the page three girl who is, you know, always topless.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did the German magazines respond?
JEFF BERCOVICI: They both pretty much knuckled under. I believe that Stern hasn't run that kind of content since then. Bild pushed back a little bit, but they too were willing to accommodate Apple, because in the end you sort of [LAUGHS] have to work with Apple. Right now it’s illegal to jailbreak your iPhone to alter the programming so that it can run apps that aren't approved by Apple. The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants to grant an exemption to that law to make it legal. Their argument basically is that by only allowing the iPhone to run approved apps, they're stifling competition throughout the market for app development because their control is so great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So explain to me why Apple is so fastidious in keeping material that might offend somebody off its site. It strikes me that if you’re creating an environment that’s safe for a nine-year-old, then it means you’re creating an environment that lacks all risk, all excitement, all challenge for an adult.
JEFF BERCOVICI: All James Joyce, all Oscar Wilde. Yes, Apple is a company that is one man’s vision and one man’s whims, and Steve Jobs, at some point in his life, got it into his head that people, what they want from Apple is to be shielded from what’s unpleasant, whether it’s unpleasantly bad design – he’s done a wonderful job of shielding us from that – or whether it’s the unpleasantness of, of Internet porn that you accidentally stumble onto. His impulse has always sort of run counter to the chaotic, democratic nature of the Internet. He wants to give you an environment that’s very controlled and curated, and in general people have responded to that well. So I think that’s why in a lot of these cases he’s sort of erring on the side of when in doubt, throw it out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Both the iPhone and the iPad come with browsers. You can go to any website, pornographic or otherwise, using Safari. Are we -
JEFF BERCOVICI: I'm on a pornographic website right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Are we just getting the choice of two Internets, the clean, well-lighted space of the Apple app world versus the potentially seedy, if more exciting, browser system?
JEFF BERCOVICI: Absolutely. There are a lot of people who think that all of this talk about how apps are going to be the dominant mode of consumption on tablets and on smart phones are kidding themselves. All the things that make apps so hugely attractive to media companies, the idea that they can really control the environment, that they can, you know, serve you this sort of richer advertising that’s harder to opt out of, all of those things are exactly the things that make it less attractive to a lot of media consumers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff, thank you very much.
JEFF BERCOVICI: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Bercovici is the media columnist for DailyFinance.