Apple, the Reluctant Arbiter, Needs an Advisory Council

 “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” — Saint Augustine 

In my last Hidden Dimensions column I argued that modern technology trends, fate, and Apple’s self-imposed obligation to customers have led to Apple becoming the ultimate arbiter of which apps get approved for the App Store. But that doesn’t mean that Apple has to go it alone. Here’s a proposal.

Lady Justice

Apple has had a few notable problems making the decision about which apps to approve (or subsequently pull) based on its own guidelines. Some apps have been approved, then pulled based on petitions. A notable app was rejected, then approved when public pressure overruled Apple’s guideline that proved too poorly formulated.

This latter case happened when a Pulitzer Prize winning author, Mark Fiore, submitted an app (NewToons) with political satire. Apple rejected the app at first because it violated Apple’s prohibition against defamation. Public pressure and the fact that political satire from accomplished writers is an American tradition trumped Apple’s incomplete guidelines.

More recently, Apple has gotten into trouble with two apps that purported to help people understand their sexuality. From TMO, Nov 30, 2010: “Apple has pulled an app from the App Store that espoused an anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda called Manhattan Declaration from a group with the same name. The app had been approved and given a 4+ age rating, a rating that means the app contains ‘no objectionable material,’ but Apple pulled the app over the Thanksgiving weekend after PinkNews got more than seven thousand signatures asking for the app to be pulled.”

The same thing happened with the Exodus International app recently. The app was initially declared to have no objectionable material — until petitioners objected and Apple caved.

What this is telling me is that Apple, as an arbiter of suitable material for own App Store is more in the Jimmy Olsen phase of its editorship, not the Perry White phase. Apple arbiters need more experience and, barring that, more guidance. The reason is that there’s a very, very fine line between letting people have a platform, even when one doesn’t agree with it (tolerance) and objecting to a platform that’s fundamentally wrong based on our best sense of national story developed through western values, grace and wisdom. Cases keep coming along that test that fine line.

A Proposal

This kind of painful waffling has happened before. One case of particular interest to me is Galileo Galilei. In 1633, Galileo was ordered under house arrest for heresy. Galileo’s observation of the planet Jupiter, through the telescope he constructed himself, revealed that there were objects (Jupiter’s moons) that were in orbit around another heavenly body — in contradiction to the Catholic Church’s views of scripture. Galileo also believed, contrary to accepted scripture, that the earth revolved around the sun. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church believed that it knew all about the origin and structure of the universe, (at least the universe it knew at the time), and that the Earth is the center of everything, unmovable. Galileo, for his detailed observations of the sky, was declared a heretic.


 Galileo Galilei

It’s easy to see how both sides believed they were in possession of the truth.

Today, a wiser Catholic Church maintains an advisory council on science as it relates to religion. The “Pontifical Academy of Sciences” has astrophysicists, biologists, geneticists, particle/nuclear physicists and climatologists. They meet regularly to advise the Vatican.

If the Catholic Church can muster the grace and humility to have advisors, why can’t Apple? 

Of course, Apple has gotten into trouble in the past with advisory committees. As soon as some people are selected for this kind of position, they tend to go public, bask in their power, and start telling Apple what to do.

Apple hates being told what to do.

This is how the council would have to work. The members cannot reveal publicly that they’ve been nominated to the council. They don’t get paid. Apple can accept or reject their advice. They can be dismissed by Apple at any time.

This Apple Advisory council would have members personally contacted and offered the position as discreet advisors. The council would only contain distinguished men and women who have demonstrated accomplishment, strong values, and strong influence in the community. Awards, as recognition of their past service and universal recognition of their excellence, would count heavily.

Here is a sampling of what such a council could look like. Of course, Apple will have it own ideas, but for starters I would suggest: Distinguished professors of ethics, senior members from the major religions, civil rights leaders, a senior law enforcement official or two, a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a few attorneys who specialize in ethics and civil liberties, and a senior, distinguished newspaper editor or two.

When sticky issues come up, and they will continue to arise with ever more nuance and difficulties, this council could provide Apple with the best possible advice. Apple would make the final decision, but be much better informed. There would be fewer reversed decisions, and Apple wouldn’t have to depend on feverish petitions submitted by the most vocal of customers nor have to agonize over poorly written or incomplete internal guidelines for borderline cases.

Best if all, it’s all transparent to the customers. Council members, wisely selected for their desire to be of service, not promote their own careers, wouldn’t be bickering in public. I know this could work because I did it myself when I worked for Apple — I had my own discreet Apple Science Advisory Group (ASAG) with about a hundred members. They were technical, wise, helpful, and worked with me behind the scenes to guide Apple’s support of science and technology.

We’ll never know if Apple adopts this idea. Perhaps the company already has. However, if Apple has not, I humbly recommend they act as wisely and prudently as the Roman Catholic Church has and avoid any more embarrassing decisions by young Apple executives who are over their heads in law, ethics, religion and civil liberties.

It’s a fantasy to believe that Apple will stop curating its own store. So long as the company is committed to the job, it should seek quality, experienced guidance on the most difficult cases.