Five years ago, Josh Begley, a data artist and editor at The Intercept, created a straightforward news app for iOS. It sent a push notification to your device each time a U.S. drone strike was reported by a news outlet.
There’s a map that shows you where the drone strikes occurred and a log that keeps track of each one. That’s it. No pictures, no interviews.
And yet, it was censored by Apple for years. Begley attempted to bring Metadata+, which was originally called Drones+, to the App Store a dozen times.
It finally became available for download on Tuesday, and then was abruptly removed again five hours later. Begley received an email from Apple Tuesday afternoon, notifying him that his app was removed for containing content that “many users would find objectionable.”
So why exactly did Apple remove Begley’s app? Depending on when you asked, Apple’s answer was different.
The company first rejected Begley’s app because it “was not useful or entertaining enough,” and “did not appeal to a broad enough audience.”
That seems like a strange excuse when apps like this one, which claims to blow candles out for you, get approved. You know, for that broad audience of people unable to breathe air out their mouths.
The second rejection came because Begley used Google Maps images without the correct Google branding. The third because Metadata+ contained content that “many audiences would find objectionable.”
So documenting extrajudicial killings by a world power is “objectionable,” but apparently options like Adult Naughty Sounds are not. Got it.
Begley tried two more times to no avail. Then, at the end of 2013, Begley says he received a call from an Apple employee, who explained his app wouldn’t be approved if it focused narrowly on U.S. drone strikes.
“If it’s going to be about that specifically, it’s not going to be approved,” the Apple employee told Begley at the time. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Begley then resorted to a number of different methods. He changed the name of the name from Drones+ to Dronestream, then eventually to Metadata+. And he totally excluded the word “drones” from the app’s description.
At one point, Begley completely removed the content and functionality from the app, planning to add it back later after it was approved.
In 2014, Apple did approve Begley’s blank app, which he then backfilled with drone strike data.
A year later, Apple mysteriously deleted Metadata+, again citing “excessively objectionable or crude content.” According to Begley, it had been downloaded over 50,000 times.
When you look at Apple’s specific guidelines for App submissions, it’s difficult to see what part of Metadata+ violated them.
Section 1.1, “Objectionable Content,” stipulates an app cannot include content that is “offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust or in exceptionally poor taste.”
There’s an argument to be made that it’s upsetting to be repeatedly reminded that your government’s carried out covert war efforts across the globe that routinely kill more civilians than it cares to admit.
But it’s hard to argue that’s Metadata+’s sole objective is to horrify you. For one, it doesn’t show a drone strike’s aftermath. There are no mutilated bodies. Not even destroyed houses or buildings.
Since the beginning, Begley’s app has merely aggregated news about U.S. drone strikes in text format. It puts together widely available news reports—many of which are ostensibly available right in Apple’s own News app.
Apple has allowed similar single-issue news apps in its store before, like Military News and NRA Magazines. So why did it give Begley such a hard time? It’s hard to tell, partially because Apple is so secretive.
Apple’s review team is small and sorts through tons of apps. It’s possible that in haste, they erred on the side of caution when it came to Metadata+.
We don’t know that for sure, since Apple has repeatedly declined to comment on how the app reviews process works.
Regardless, the decision to suppress Begley’s app for so long is preventing Americans from learning more about their government’s war efforts.
For the last 15 years, journalists, activists and attorneys have risked their lives in places like Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan to document the U.S.’s secret drone war.
It feels unjust that a tech company like Apple has the power to repeatedly censor this information. Unfortunately, Apple censors its App Store all the time.
In 2015, for example, it removed Civil War games from the App Store that featured the Confederate flag “in offensive or mean-spirited ways.”
The tech giant has also regulated the App Store for reasons ostensibly tied to its business interests. Last year, it blocked an update to Spotify’s app, reportedly because it wanted to avoid competition for Apple Music.
Metadata+’s long—and ultimately unsuccessful—struggle to reach the App Store is merely one example of how Apple chooses to police its walled garden.
It serves as an important reminder of how tech giants get to dictate the kind of content they allow inside their ecosystems—effectively regulating the way you experience the internet.
UPDATE: March 28, 2017, 3:22 p.m. EST This article has been updated with the email Begley received from Apple.