Apple's Phil Schiller comments on Ninjawords censor scandal

The internet has been abuzz over the past few days over speculation that Apple demanded an iPhone dictionary app both censor itself and be classified 17+ under the App Store's new age restriction guidelines.  Prime among their complaint about the Ninjawords dictionary app was that it gave access to "vulgar words", which Apple's app approval team highlighted in their feedback; the list was criticised for being relatively generic, and present in just about every dictionary.  According to Apple's Phil Schiller, however, it wasn't so much the words they mentioned, but the "offensive urban slang" – and, since Ninjawords is based on an editable wiki dictionary, the possibility for more such slang – the app also gave access to.

Full statement from Schiller after the cut

Schiller also took issue with the suggestion that Apple had demanded the developer censor its app, whereas in fact it was the app reviewer team's preference that they re-submit it – unchanged – when Apple's parental control systems came into affect.  Unfortunately that launch date was not public knowledge at the time, and so developer Matchstick chose to cut out the offensive terms and re-submit.

Even so, the fact that at its core Ninjawords uses a publicly-editable source meant Apple felt a 17+ restriction was appropriate, leading to a public perception that even a censored app was still being forced to take on a higher-than-expected rating.  While Schiller makes his case well – and the Matchstick developer team seem to concur with his comments – it does seem a PR slip-up to have not immediately countered discussion of Ninjawords' censoring with their core argument, that the software is based on an open-access database that could readily be edited to include offensive language or statements.

Phil Schiller's statement:

When I read your column last night about the Ninjawords dictionary application I immediately investigated it with our App Store review team to learn the facts of what happened.

Let me start with the most important points – Apple did not censor the content in this developer's application and Apple did not reject this developer's application for including references to common swear words. You accused Apple of both in your story and the fact is that we did neither.

Ninjawords is an application which uses content from the online wiki-based dictionary to provide a nice fast dictionary application on the web and on the iPhone. Contrary to what you reported, the Ninjawords application was not rejected in the App Store review process for including common "swear" words. In fact anyone can easily see that Apple has previously approved other dictionary applications in the App Store that include all of the "swear" words that you gave as examples in your story.

The issue that the App Store reviewers did find with the Ninjawords application is that it provided access to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable. A quick search on easily turns up a number of offensive "urban slang" terms that you won't find in popular dictionaries such as one that you referenced, the New Oxford American Dictionary included in Mac OS X. Apple rejected the initial submission of Ninjawords for this reason, provided the Ninjawords developer with information about some of the vulgar terms, and suggested to the developer that they resubmit the application for approval once parental controls were implemented on the iPhone.

The Ninjawords developer then decided to filter some offensive terms in the Ninjawords application and resubmit it for approval for distribution in the App Store before parental controls were implemented. Apple did not ask the developer to censor any content in Ninjawords, the developer decided to do that themselves in order to get to market faster. Even though the developer chose to censor some terms, there still remained enough vulgar terms that it required a parental control rating of 17+.

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; is an open, ever-changing resource and filtering the content does not seem reasonable or necessary.