Dear Steve Jobs: Questions about censorship, satire, iPad accessories

May 17, 2010 11:21 AM EDT

Hi, Steve! Allow me to introduce myself. I'm author of the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog.

We actually spoke once or twice in the 90s, when you were at NeXT. I remember one incident clearly -- we did a phone interview and you hung up on me when I wouldn't go off the record about something you'd said. I think that was in 1991 or 1992 or so. Don't worry, I don't hold a grudge.

I have enormous admiration for you and your company. I think you are, no kidding, one of the greatest Americans of the past century, for adding beauty and grace to the utilitarian realm of computers and consumer electronics, and also for running a multi-billion-dollar corporation in the style of a small boutique, defying most of the rules of business that other companies follow. You and Apple are just plain amazing.

I started out to write you today to ask you whether this e-mail exchange wherein you purportedly told off a Valleywag editor is authentic, whether you actually sent the e-mails they attribute to you: Steve Jobs Offers World 'Freedom From Porn.'

But I decided it would, instead, be more interesting to ask you my own questions.

The first issue I want to ask you about is censorship. I've read a lot of second-hand reports about Apple's policies, but I want to just put those aside for a moment and ask you directly to walk me through this from the beginning.

Why do you block adult content from the App Store? Shouldn't adults be allowed to decide for themselves what they and their children are allowed to see and read?

I've seen reports that your reasoning behind blocking porn on the App Store is that you see the App Store as analogous to your brick-and-mortar store. Any retailer has a right, and even an obligation, to decide what books and magazines it carries, and your philosophy with regard to the App Store is no different. Is that a correct description of your philosophy? (Unfortunately, I didn't save a link to the article.)

I'm uncomfortable with multi-billion-dollar corporations setting themselves up as the arbiter of that which is fit or unfit to view. This kind of filtering is inevitable in the case of a brick-and-mortar bookstore or TV station where resources are finite, and any products they carry means they can't carry something else. But the App store is virtually infinite; an app with objectionable content doesn't block the App Store from also carrying more wholesome apps.

But censorship of sexual content is only part of the problem. Historically, America has always had censorship with regard to sexual content, and freedom has survived despite that (for everyone, that is, except for the unfortunate few who've been branded as perverts). We have a history of separate rules for sexual content and other content -- especially political expression -- and applying harsher standards to sexual content. It may not be ideal, but it's worked for a couple of centuries now.

My greater concern is that censorship will, inevitably, go further than sexual content. I cite the case of Mark Fiore as an example.

As you know, Fiore is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning political cartoonist who says his app was censored because it ridiculed public figures -- President Obama for example.

According to Fiore, this was all just a big misunderstanding, and the app has since been approved. But I'm concerned about the chilling effects this kind of censorship might have on other satirists and people who want to speak out politically, but don't have the bully pulpit of a Pulitzer Prize to amplify their voice.

I'm concerned about reports that apps ridiculing public figures are banned from the App Store. Because ridiculing public figures is the essence of satire, it's integral to the free speech that helped make America great. I'd love to see the App Store policies specifically amended to permit, even encourage, political speech and ridiculing public figures.

Another issue related to censorship: Why have App Store filters at all when so much of the same content is available on the Internet? It seems weird and contradictory to take the time and trouble to filter objectionable content from the App Store, when virtually all that content is available on the Web. (I hope you're not planning to set up Web filters, please tell me you're not.)

As a side-note, I roll my eyes every time I download a Twitter app or Web browser and get a warning message telling me it might be used to access adult content. Does anybody need to be warned that there's adult content on the Internet? Seriously? It makes me feel like Apple doesn't have much respect for its customers, that it thinks of us as five-year-olds. Can you at least get rid of those silly warnings?

I wonder if you could talk about these issues a little bit -- what do you think? What's your reasoning? Like I said, I've seen lots of second-hand reports and statements attributed to you, but I haven't seen Apple go on the record about this directly.

On a lighter note: Got any favorite iPad accessories?

I'm planning to publish this note on my blog, and will publish your response as well.

Thanks, and keep up the great work. By the way, my wife and I each have an iPad. We love them. We also have various iPhones, iMacs, and iPods, and are quite happy with those. I'm planning to buy a new MacBook Pro this month, and the new iPhone everyone is expecting this summer.

Cheers, and thanks again for the great work you've done over the years. Hopefully, you'll be giving me reasons for me to give you my money for many more years to come!

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media marketing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.