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Apple bans satirical iPhone game Phone Story from its App Store

Removal of game that includes references to child labour and factory-worker suicides reignites debate about how Apple treats apps differently to music, books and films

Apple has never hidden the fact that it has a stricter censorship policy for iOS apps than for other forms of entertainment. The debate about whether this is unfair is heating up once more this week, however, after it removed an iPhone game called Phone Story from its App Store.

The game was released by Italian developer Molleindustria, whose mission statement is to "reappropriate video games as a popular form of mass communication" and "investigate the persuasive potentials of the medium by subverting mainstream video gaming cliche".

In Phone Story's case, that took the form of four mini-games about the "troubling supply chain" behind smartphones – all smartphones, not specifically iPhones – including coltan extraction in Congo, outsourced labour in China, environmental waste in Pakistan, as well as the mania for gadgets in the West. One of the mini-games sees workers leaping from their factory building: a clear reference to suicides and attempted suicides by workers at Apple's manufacturing partner Foxconn.

Molleindustria said that all its net revenues from sales of the iPhone game would go to charities tackling corporate abuses.

A game where you have to catch plummeting factory employees, oversee underage miners and distribute smartphones outside a store with a white pear logo on the front? Apple's disapproval comes as no surprise, but in an interview with Gamasutra, Molleindustria's Paolo Pedercini says that in itself is a comment on the iOS ecosystem.

"Here's the problem: the unanimous reaction from developers community has been, 'Wow, it's incredible Phone Story made through Apple's review process'. To me, this signals a full acceptance of a regime of censorship, the equivalent, for developers, of what journalists call the 'chilling effect'. I'm sure that Apple doesn't spend that much time in policing its marketplace, because the developers are already censoring themselves."

Pedercini goes on to talk about Apple's wider attitude to cultural products. "Of course, Apple has the right; it is the acceptance of Apple view about the cultural status of the 'App'. For them, games and applications are not part of culture like books or music. Try to imagine what kind of reaction iTunes would provoke if they banned all the songs with 'excessive objectionable' content."

On one level, Apple can't be faulted for its transparency on this score. In September 2010, it published some App Store guidelines, available to all developers (and reprinted in full at the time on several websites). "We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate," explained the document.

"If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store… We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. 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."

According to Pedercini, Apple's email informing him of Phone Story's removal claimed the game had crossed four specific lines, in the form of specific guidelines for unacceptable apps. Two relating to charities and contributions appear to be wide of the mark, with the guidelines focusing on in-app donations, while Molleindustria was merely saying it would donate its download revenues to charities once it was paid.

The other two flouted guidelines relate to depictions of "violence or abuse of children", and "excessively objectionable or crude content". The former appears to be crucial to the satirical intent of the game, while the latter is something of a grey area – who is most likely to object to the content here: users or Apple?

Judging by his Gamasutra interview, Pedercini is fairly pessimistic about his chances of getting a resubmitted version of the game approved. In the past, these situations have been resolved – for example Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore had his NewsToons app rejected, sparking a media row over censorship, before resubmitting it unchanged and being approved. However, the subject material there was politicians and public figures, not Apple's own business.

The rejection of Phone Story raises wider questions for app publishers beyond the Games category in 2011. What kind of treatment could a newspaper or magazine expect if it ran a lead feature exploring exactly the topics highlighted in Molleindustria's game, for example?

It should be noted that thus far, Apple has shown no appetite for censoring editorial-based apps in this way. But the debate around how an app store owner responds when an app criticises and/or satirises its own business practices and those of its partners is not just restricted to Apple: it's one for all the platform owners, device makers and mobile operators launching their own curated stores.

Apple declined to comment on the story when contacted by The Guardian

http://m.guardian.co.uk/technology/appsblog/2011/sep/14/apple-phone-story-rejection?cat=technology&type=article

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Well, I daresay that in causing this hoo-ha Apple have done a far better job of highlighting the 'troubling supply chain' behind smartphones than Molleindustria could have possibly dreamed of.

I may have my head buried in the sand, but I certainly hadn't heard about Foxconn until this story broke and I'd hazard a guess that an app wouldn't have brought it to my attention.

And that's before you consider all the negative feeling that coming across as an insecure, knee-jerk, corporate dictatorship this story will bring.

Quite the smart move all in all.

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Yeah, i'd definitely say this small collection of minigames made entirely to satirise apple's corporate practices was done in the expectation of making millions on the android marketplace. Definitely. I'm just pissed off I didn't think of it first, i'd have that gold bathtub by the end of next week.

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I may have my head buried in the sand, but I certainly hadn't heard about Foxconn until this story broke and I'd hazard a guess that an app wouldn't have brought it to my attention.

You didn't hear about the employee suicides led by extreme pressure to meet deadlines from western demand for devices (mostly iPhones and iPads), and then the factory owners installing 'suicide nets' to stop such practices?

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You didn't hear about the employee suicides led by extreme pressure to meet deadlines from western demand for devices (mostly iPhones and iPads), and then the factory owners installing 'suicide nets' to stop such practices?

You didn't hear that under Chinese law staff that died "on the job" had a compensation policy that paid a lifetimes wages to their family?

Of the 17 alleged suicides just a few of them were successful and some were not even considered suicide attempts.

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Oh so that's alright then! Let's all move on, nothing wrong with people jumping off high buildings, they didn't die after all, and hey some arrogant white chap in China said it's not even considered suicide, so it's all cool.

I have life insurance, doesn't mean I want to top myself for the sake of my family.

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You didn't hear that under Chinese law staff that died "on the job" had a compensation policy that paid a lifetimes wages to their family?

Of the 17 alleged suicides just a few of them were successful and some were not even considered suicide attempts.

That's ok, they're only chinks anyway hey?

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The actual reason they removed it from the store was that it directly violated two of their many rules. Firstly 'no apps which depict cruelty to or suffering of children' and secondly 'all apps in which you can make a charitable donation must be free'.

Still, lolz apple iz evil etc. It's their store, their rules, if you don't want to abide by their rules, release your app for every other smartphone and let the Apple folk 'miss out'. It's not like Apple being a walled garden full of hoops to jump through is anything new.

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You didn't hear that under Chinese law staff that died "on the job" had a compensation policy that paid a lifetimes wages to their family?

Of the 17 alleged suicides just a few of them were successful and some were not even considered suicide attempts.

That's not really much of a way of deterring people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Kill yourself, and your family is set for life, as it were. That's actually pretty sick, as far as incentives go.

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What the fuck are you talking about?

"Foxconn having given the families of suicide victims 400,000 [RMB] plus a 30,000 [RMB] yearly pension to the parents have led to these poverty-stricken workers to copy each other willing to use their deaths to exchange financial security for their families."

http://www.chinasmack.com/2010/stories/more-foxconn-suicide-news-reports.html

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"Foxconn having given the families of suicide victims 400,000 [RMB] plus a 30,000 [RMB] yearly pension to the parents have led to these poverty-stricken workers to copy each other willing to use their deaths to exchange financial security for their families."

http://www.chinasmack.com/2010/stories/more-foxconn-suicide-news-reports.html

Right so the fact they're dead isn't a worry, or the multiple attempted suicides?

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"Foxconn having given the families of suicide victims 400,000 [RMB] plus a 30,000 [RMB] yearly pension to the parents have led to these poverty-stricken workers to copy each other willing to use their deaths to exchange financial security for their families."

http://www.chinasmack.com/2010/stories/more-foxconn-suicide-news-reports.html

Right, so conditions in the Foxconn plant are still so shit that people are willing to kill themselves, it’s just that they now have a new remuneration package that actually proactively incentivises people to kill themselves. Carrot and stick, simultaneously – why has nobody thought of this before? The factory’s productivity will go through the roof! assuming the purpose of the factory is to produce dead people, rather than iPhones.

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Right, so conditions in the Foxconn plant are still so shit that people are willing to kill themselves, it’s just that they now have a new remuneration package that actually proactively incentivises people to kill themselves. Carrot and stick, simultaneously – why has nobody thought of this before? The factory’s productivity will go through the roof! assuming the purpose of the factory is to produce dead people, rather than iPhones.

The suicides were last year, so they've changed something. I've not seen newer reports of Foxconn deaths this year, if so link me up.

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The actual reason they removed it from the store was that it directly violated two of their many rules. Firstly 'no apps which depict cruelty to or suffering of children' and secondly 'all apps in which you can make a charitable donation must be free'.

Still, lolz apple iz evil etc. It's their store, their rules, if you don't want to abide by their rules, release your app for every other smartphone and let the Apple folk 'miss out'. It's not like Apple being a walled garden full of hoops to jump through is anything new.

It actually violated four - one for depictions of child abuse, one for "objectionable or crude content", then two that govern charitable donations using in-app purchasing which don't quite cut it.

The developer specifically worked around the content policy to ensure it wasn't in violation of any of it. I can totally understand why Apple banned it (and they're hardly the only company that uses Foxconn for manufacture) but they didn't ban it for any of those rules. They banned it because it embarrassed them, not because it was against any rules.

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So suicide is the barometer with which we now measure corporate abuse, cool. No suicide = everything is hunky dory. Let's all go and have a cup if tea and pretend this silly debate ever happened.

Your experience of Chinese factories really is outstanding. Let's hook up in Starbucks to discuss this further.

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Your experience of Chinese factories really is outstanding. Let's hook up in Starbucks to discuss this further.

I don't have any experience of Chinese factories. I'm absolutely ignorant for the most part, but I don't see what that had to do with anything.

What's your point about Starbucks?

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I don't have any experience of Chinese factories. I'm absolutely ignorant for the most part, but I don't see what that had to do with anything.

What's your point about Starbucks?

I assume it's that you don't have the right to cast aspersions on corporate abuse on his doorstep because you once had a sneaky chai latte from an evil multinational corporation on your own doorstep.

What I suggest now is that you say something like "your experience of multinational coffee chains really is outstanding. Let's hook up in a Foxconn prevention net to discuss this further."

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You didn't hear about the employee suicides led by extreme pressure to meet deadlines from western demand for devices (mostly iPhones and iPads), and then the factory owners installing 'suicide nets' to stop such practices?

Not until this story broke, no. Which explains 'I may have my head buried in the sand'. But thanks for calling me out on it.

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You've got me mate, not a clue what you're on about. Are you saying it's hypocritical of us to discuss it because we use electronic goods made in these factories, or are you saying poor staff conditions and morale is the norm in China and therefore nothing to worry about?

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