Apple Goes on Censorship Spree

Izneo logoOnce again, European attitudes towards nudity and sex have clashed with an American business behemoth. Last time, it was Facebook and Paris’ Jeu de Paume museum; this time, it’s Apple and a French distributor of e-comics.

Izneo is a digital platform for comics from several French and Belgian publishers. In addition to hosting comics on its own website, Izneo also offers apps for Android, Windows, and Apple’s iOS. But last week, an anonymous source from Izneo told ebook news site IDBOOX that someone from Apple contacted Izneo to say that they had 30 hours to remove undefined objectionable material from the app or it would be banned from the AppStore. Izneo asked for clarification as to which of its more than 4,000 comics posed a problem, but Apple refused to elaborate. Seeing little alternative, Izneo removed from the app every single comic that included “a breast, provocative cleavage, a curve, or a suggestive gesture.” This was likely overkill, but seeing as Apple refused to define what it considered objectionable, Izneo decided to operate on the assumption of maximum prudishness. In the end, only about 1,200 of the original 4,000 comics remained. Since the original purge, Izneo has begun to test Apple’s boundaries by restoring certain titles, so the app database has already grown again to 2,500 titles.

This is far from the first time that comics have run up against Apple’s undefined content policies. In 2010 graphic novel versions of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest had to be edited before they could be sold in the AppStore, and most manga publishers haven’t even attempted to make iOS apps because they know their content would be rejected.

While Apple is certainly free to set its own policies as a private company, it should also do content developers the courtesy of telling them exactly what those policies are so they don’t need to do the Izneo dance. Much like the Jeu de Paume, which  decided under duress to stop posting any nude photographs from its art collection on its Facebook page, Izneo was providing content that ruffles few if any feathers in its home country. Like Jeu de Paume, Izneo is being asked to accommodate some very American hangups concerning nudity and sex, and it has no idea where the line is. At Cnet France, blogger Florent Taillandier sums up the situation (translated from French by yours truly):

The Izneo team is reduced to self-censorship, which is rather clever of Apple, who therefore does not have to do the work on a case-by-case basis. But this self-censorship under threat will also deprive potential readers of anodyne titles that do not shock anyone here. This once again raises questions regarding the imbalance of power where publishing giants are concerned. It is now difficult for any digital content provider to take the slightest risk for fear of being dropped by Apple, which has become a vital distribution channel.

As such international clashes of mores become more common, it is imperative for companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter — all U.S.-based but catering to users from many countries and cultures — to develop fair, explicit, and upfront content policies that clearly define what is and is not acceptable on their platforms. And if they can’t define that — as one suspects may be the case here — they certainly shouldn’t expect users the world over to automatically know it either.

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.

CORRECTION: Since the publishing of this article, it has come to our attention that comiXology, not Apple, removed Saga #12 from distribution. comiXology made the decision based on their understanding of Apple’s content policies. They have since reversed course and the book is now available. More information…