App Preemptively Bans Comic Due To Unclear Apple Policies

Apr 15, 2013 • Apps, Comics, Culture, Freedom

image from SAGA #9, drawing by Fiona Staples

Last week, all hell broke lose online after Brian K. Vaughan, writer and co-creator (with artist Fiona Staples) of the space opera SAGA, released a statement on his blog saying that Apple had “banned” its 12th issue from being released on any iOS apps. He wrote in a blog post:

As has hopefully been clear from the first page of our first issue, SAGA is a series for the proverbial “mature reader.” Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps. This is a drag, especially because our book has featured what I would consider much more graphic imagery in the past, but there you go. Fiona and I could always edit the images in question, but everything we put into the book is there to advance our story, not (just) to shock or titillate, so we’re not changing shit.

As it turned out, it wasn’t Apple that was doing the banning. CosmiXology, the popular comics aggregator and distributor of SAGA, had decided to preemptively censor the comic. In a statement on their own blog, ComiXology’s chief executive David Steinberger writes:

As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps. Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, so we released the issue on our webstore and excluded it on the comiXology iOS app.

We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance. […] After hearing from Apple this morning, we can say that our interpretation of its policies was mistaken. You’ll be glad to know that Saga #12 will be available on our App Store app soon.

Fans should be cautioned not to breathe a sigh of relief — this is a clear red flag about the power of ambiguous policies and seemingly arbitrary censorship events from digital outlets. It’s evident that as long as such policies remain unclear, incidents like this one will continue to occur as middlemen work to stay on the good side of digital giants.

“We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line,” say Apple’s approval guidelines. “What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, ‘I’ll know it when I see it’. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

The reference to the phrase that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to describe his threshold for what qualifies as obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, is problematic to anyone who knows said court’s rather inconsistent record when it comes to defining obscenity. There has to be a better way.

I hope that way involves choice. Give us the tools to protect ourselves from content we may consider questionable, but don’t assume that you know what’s best for everyone.