Apple has a long history of keeping its doors shut and its system closed. Whether it was turning away a number of controversial games from the App Store least year or their defiant stance on Flash integration, Apple has always operated under the assumption that they know what’s best for both its products and its users.
For many months, the story of developer Josh Begley and his app that tracked American drone strikes abroad seemed like it was going to end with that same chilling silence. But after being rejected from the App Store five times, Apple has finally published what was eventually titled Metadata+—but the journey to get there wasn’t easy. But more on that later.
The app itself is a simple idea. At its core, it’s not more than news aggregator based on the specific topic of U.S. drone strikes on other countries. The app has two primary screens: a map view and a written stream. The map view gives the user a map of the world with pins placed on locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred. A tap on the pin gives a couple sentences of details on how many people were killed and what the situations of the strikes included.
The second screen of the app is even simpler— just a text newsfeed view of the drone strikes. The data is pulled in from the corresponding Twitter account @Dronestream, but don’t look unlike a bunch of iMessages. Unfortunately, the updates in the app don’t link to the news articles that the tweets do—it’s just a steady stream of one tragic update after another.
But the real power of the app comes from its notifications. You’re sitting at dinner with friends and your phone buzzes in your pocket. You pull it out expecting a text or Tweet from a friend—and instead are notified of the horrific results of U.S. overseas drone policy. It’s a reminder that at every moment there are real people in real situations whose lives are being affected by it.
There is a second story behind Metadata+ and it’s one that is almost as significant as the narrative the app seeks to tell. It’s the story of a different set of questionable policies from another force of unrestrained power in the world: Apple and it’s App Store content restrictions.
It begun almost a year and a half ago when Begley first submitted his app to be published in the App Store back in July of 2012. At the time it was called Drones+, but was otherwise very much the same app that sits in the App Store today. According to a screenshot of the rejection that was recently shared with Mashable, Apple denied it based on the argument that it was “not useful or entertaining enough,” and “did not appeal to a broad enough audience”.
If that alone seems like a strange reason to not publish an app (especially considering some of the apps that are published in the App Store), the story only gets stranger moving forward.
The following three rejections took place over the following few months, each accompanied by their own set of reasons for why the app was being rejected. In the second rejection, Apple claimed that the app used trademarked Google Maps images without proper Google branding, while the third rejection explanation was that the app included content that “many audiences would find objectionable.”
At first glance, it’s not hard to imagine Apple citing these kind of explanations in their defense. More than a year ago, the company rejected the politically-oriented iOS game Endgame: Syria, and famously stated the following in their app development guidelines: “We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. 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”. While this left the Internet in an uproar, their stance censorship of apps and games has not changed in the slightest.
But Apple’s dictatorial censorship didn’t stop Begley’s unrelenting desire to get his app out to the public.
His fourth attempt at publishing his drone-watching app came with a name change to Dronestream—although almost all of the content was still the same. According to his interview with Mashable, Begley received a phone call from an Apple representative this time and was asked if his app was indeed about drone strike policy. After he responded that it was, the representative said:
“If it’s going to be about that specifically, it’s not going to be approved,” the employee answered, according to Begley. “But if you broaden your topic, then we can take another look. You know, there are certain concepts that we decide not to move forward with, and this is one.”
And with that, it seemed to be the end of the road for Begley and his little app that could. His very last attempt was more of a trick—a sidestep around Apple’s rules than an attempt to stand against them. He renamed the app Metadata+ and removed all of the actual content from the app. It was just an empty map and empty newsfeed—and that was apparently enough for Apple’s all-seeing eye to look passed it. It’s important to remember that the app that I described in the opening paragraphs of this piece—the one that was eventually published by Apple— in the end.
It’s no surprise that much of the legislation that allows the U.S. overseas drone program to be so vast and unregulated are completely undefined. Language is used to muddy the restrictions and paint as broad of strokes as possible. Apple’s content guidelines are similarly vague and—in all honesty—have a sense of pompous ignorance to them.
The explosion of creativity and innovation in the App Store is one that Apple could have never created on its own or even expected. In fact, Apple owes a lot of the success of its platform to the developers that have come along and made their devices the go-to devices for innovation in finance, productivity, games, social media, and pretty much any other field you can think of.
But every time Apple pushes back on developers who are daring enough to think they can change the world—the more they uproot the very foundation they are built on. Before they know it, the “crazy ones, the rebels, the troublemakers, and the ones who see things differently” might find a new platform to call home.
Luke Larsen is the tech editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @lalarsen11.