Users of the popular 500px photo sharing app for iOS woke up this morning to find that the app had been pulled from the store amidst allegations from Apple that it allows people to access “pornographic images and material”.
500px is an online photo sharing site whose community consists of both amateur and professional photographers. Users can upload photos to the site, where they can be viewed and critiqued by fellow photographers. Budding photographers also have the option to purchase and sell prints of their photos, allowing them to make a little extra money on the side.
The business model seems innocent enough, but the issue started with photographers who take photos that contain nudity – not necessarily pornographic material, simply photos containing nudity. According to the COO of 500px, Evgeny Tchebotarev, Apple’s reps had informed him that it was too easy for individuals to find nude photos and that the app would be removed from the app store, when in fact the service, by default, has a safe search feature turned on. This feature removes all photos containing nudity from the search result and cannot be disabled from the app. Only by logging in from a desktop computer can the safe search feature be disabled.
500px has since updated their app to better comply with Apple’s Terms of Service, and has resubmitted the app for review.
The incident casts light on the inconsistencies of Apple’s app-review process, and the unclear nature of its policies. One example of this is the rating system they employ: a rating of +4 indicates no objectionable content, rating of +9 indicates “cartoon violence”, a rating of +12 indicates mild sexual content and/or violence, and +17 contains heavy violence and mature themes.
It’s a system that’s easy enough to understand, but the issue is that it seems to have been applied somewhat arbitrarily. For example, Tumblr, another popular content sharing site with its own app, has a rating of +4 despite the fact that it’s very easy to find hardcore pornographic content using its built in tag search, whereas fully-featured web browsers such as Chrome and iCab have the more appropriate +17 rating because they can be used to access any site on the internet.
Furthermore, their policies don’t seem to cover how APIs, interfaces provided by companies and services to allow other apps to access and manipulate their data, would be handled. For example, 500px provides an API that several other apps, such as ISO500 (which was recently acquired by 500px) utilize to provide their functionality. This, in effect, gives it access to the same library of photos as 500px, and it can do everything the 500px app does and a little extra, but it has not been pulled from the App Store.
These sorts of situations raise some interesting questions, such as “should apps that work off of another app’s API be rated according to the parent app’s capabilities?”
Despite having been around for more than 4 years, the App Store has yet to address these issues, but it’s clear that if app stores are going to become the next “thing” (see Windows 8), then Apple will need to ensure that their policies are as consistent as possible to ensure that apps aren’t wrongly categorized or removed from the store without merit.