Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The New Censorship

This time I will not write about technical topic but about my concerns about the impact of a few big companies controlling digital content.

Apple censoring political satire

On August 19th I submitted my new game LeaderFlip to the Apple Appstore. LeaderFlip is a satiric, political game where the player is flipping a caricature of Germany chancellor Merkel to the moon. The game play is similar to doodle jump, you have to make Merkel jump on floating platforms to get her as high as possible. The idea is derived from a German idiom, where shooting somebody to the moon means you want to get rid of somebody.
LeaderFlip is already available on the Windows Phone Marketplace since July and received only positive press coverage.
About ten days after the submission to the Appstore I got an email from Apple stating that LeaderFlip needs some more review time.
On September 11th I finally got notice that LeaderFlip is rejected because of:

We found that your app contains content that many audiences would find objectionable, which is not in compliance with theApp Store Review Guidelines.

Specifically, we noticed your app includes images of "German Chancellor 'Angie Make'" tied up, as well as that she is propelled by farts. 

You can have a look at the trailer to make your own judgment on this.
Rule 16.1 of the Appstore guidelines says:
"Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected"

In Germany political satire and caricature has a long history and is a crucial part of all printed media. Depicting a politician tied up in the way we did in the game is comparable soft to what you will find in reputable German newspapers and magazines. And nobody has regarded the game "excessively objectionable or crude" so far.

On the other hand, rule 14.2 of the guidelines say:
"Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary"

So, now who is to decide, what is "excessively objectionable or crude" or what is "Professional political satirists"? Of course it is Apple who is deciding according to their political and moral views.

Microsoft censoring "provocative imagery"

Just when I got angry about Apple driving me closer to my financial ruin because I cannot publish the game that I have been working on for the last months, I got a strange email from Microsoft:

Dear Developer,

This is to notify you that we are updating the Windows Phone Marketplace algorithms in order to enhance discoverability of applications targeting the broadest set of customers. As such, your applications listed below may be less visible to the average customer in the catalog. Your applications still can be discovered through search on the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Additional applications of yours may be impacted, and it could take time before you see any changes to the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Applications impacted:

More information regarding the changes can be found here.

We look forward to seeing your application updates and new applications on the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Windows Phone Marketplace Team

In other words, they are throwing Bullet Babs out of the Marketplace, for reasons they are not even telling in the email. They just give a link to a blog post:

Only after asking back for the reasons I got the reply:

Actions Required to Remove the Visibility Impact:
Update and resubmit your iconography with less provocative and suggestive imagery and content.

In short, Microsoft decided to censor out games, that do not even infringe the marketplace rules. And they do not even have the guts to tell the developers directly, but hide it inside a blogpost about enhancing the marketplace. Now, let us have a look at my "provocative and suggestive imagery":
Well, it is a girl in a dress holding a gun... Skirt to short? Breasts to big? I don't know...

Moral and culture defined by companies

When looking at big companies we usually worry about cartels threatening the free markets. I think, it is also time to worry about big companies threatening our culture. If we have a look at the smartphone market, we see that there are three global players restricting the content:
- Apple
- Google
- Microsoft (well, WP7 is still not important)
If you look at online games or private digital data filtering you will also have to look at
- Facebook

All companies have in common that they define their own guidelines and restrict digital content according to their own moral, cultural as well as political views. As digital content becomes more and more important, their influence will become more dominant.

As a German citizen I see this even more crucial, as German cultural values and moral is different to North American ones. For example, in Germany violent content is regarded more critical then sexual content. Whereas the "Nipplegate" incident teach us how sensitive USA citizens react on sexual content.
Well, censorship on itself is a difficult topic and this is not what I want to discuss here. My point is, that the censorship is not done by an independent agency anymore, as we see this with games that are traditionally published. And the censorship rules are not according to the country's laws.
No, the rules are defined and applied by the companies that run the digital distribution shops or platforms. And by that, they impose their moral, cultural and political views to their customers.

For me, as an indie-developer, the arbitrary decisions are very annoying to handle. But besides the business concerns, I am also concerned about companies creating a moral and culture monopoly.
Will we in future only be able to see cute "angry" birds and "cute" zombies?

*** Update ***

After discussion with Apple they finally published LeaderFlip on the App Store without changes. It  took exactly one month from submission to publish. But at least I am happy that I did not have to change the content.