NOTE: An Apple representative has responded to the original article—see update below the cut.


When a friend called my attention to this story earlier, he did so with the rhetorical question, “Apple, why do you make it so hard for me to defend you?” I can certainly sympathize. Apple has made some bizarre decisions to reject iPhone applications over the last year, and it is becoming harder by the moment to defend them.

The latest bizarre app rejection involves the Ninjawords dictionary app. Even though the app was rated for 17+, and even though Ninjawords’s programmers took measures to make sure the words would never show up unless specifically searched in their entirety, the app was rejected until a number of “vulgar” words were removed. (Note: the first link includes a list of those vulgar words. If you’re reading from work, it might be best to wait to click through until you get home.)

That’s right: Apple is now censoring a dictionary of the English language.

This really isn’t the face Apple needs to be presenting so soon after getting an FCC letter of inquiry asking, among other things, what the exact criteria are that Apple uses to approve or reject a given application. Given that other dictionaries have been approved to the app store with the same objectionable content included, Apple’s criteria for rejection seem to be entirely arbitrary, presumably based on which reviewer happens to look at an app and how he or she is feeling that day.

Update: Apple’s Phil Schiller has responded to John Gruber’s blog post, clarifying the rejection of Ninjawords. (Note: As with the first link, this one cites a number of vulgar words that might not be entirely work-safe.)

In short, Ninjawords uses a database of words derived from Wiktionary, which includes "more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries”. It was submitted for approval in May—a month before age-filtering options became available with the release of iPhone OS 3.0.

Schiller says that the app reviewers suggested Ninjawords wait until filtering options became available (though they could not say when that would be) and submit it then. Rather than wait, Ninjawords chose to remove the terms Apple found objectionable and resubmit.

You are correct that the Ninjawords application should not have needed to be censored while also receiving a 17+ rating, but that was a result of the developers’ actions, not Apple’s. I believe that the Apple app review team’s original recommendation to the developer to submit the Ninjawords application, without censoring it, to the App Store once parental controls was implemented would have been the best course of action for all; Wiktionary.org is an open, ever-changing resource and filtering the content does not seem reasonable or necessary.

Gruber finds the explanation plausible, but nonetheless notes that “other dictionary apps in the App Store have innocuous age ratings, and yet contain all of the words that App Store reviewers objected to in Ninjawords”. He suspects that not all app reviewers are aware that dictionaries should be allowed to contain words that are otherwise inadmissible.

But even if this one rejection ends up having a somewhat reasonable explanation, that does not mean Apple qualifies for a pass just yet. As David Rothman noted earlier today, the strange rejections continue in other contexts. I am really starting to look forward to seeing how Apple responds to the aforementioned FCC letter of inquiry.