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Virtual #Ferguson Crime Scene #App Removed by #Apple

When any kind of new media surfaces, censorship is always a difficult issue. From the video nasties of the 1980s to the early, wilfully offensive video games that ran riot before ESRB came into being, it's never an easy factor to define. From the beginning of the iPhone generation, Apple made it clear that the same rules don't apply to apps as to content like music and books, apps can be censored and they can be, and often are, removed because of inappropriate content.

As is often the way with censorship though, what is deemed inappropriate is arguable, and sometimes content with the best of intentions ends up getting a raw deal. In the case of Ferguson Firsthand, Apple might have actually stood in the way of a vital educational tool. The app was designed to use VR technology to recreate the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last year, a case which is still hotly disputed and was a key catalyst in the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter equal rights movement.

The app contains no violence or disturbing material as such, but Apple cited the 'subject matter' as the issue when they got in touch with developer Dan Archer and told him it had been rejected. The statement made it clear that such a basis around a specific incident was 'not appropriate'. Rather insultingly, the statement then suggested that Archer go away and produce a new app based around 'a new topic' that would be 'more topical in general terms'. Basically, Ferguson is controversial, and Apple don't want controversial things lurking around the Apple store.

Using apps and games to represent social, political or historical material is, undoubtedly, a complete minefield. Games are built around mechanics which are supposed to be fun, after all, and making a tragic real-life event fun can lead to all kinds of problems. Go at it the wrong way and you'll end up playing Tetris with African slaves, or in one grizzly case from about 10 years ago, developing a 'JFK assassination simulator' which rewards you points based on how accurately you can recreate the infamous shooting.

Those are both extreme examples though, and so far as I can tell, Ferguson Firsthand demonstrates no such moral insensitivity. The app has you moving around the crime scene, examining it and using testimonials from witnesses, all of it designed to invite users to draw their own conclusions about what might have happened. When this kind of thing gets blocked, it's emblematic of the moment when general, indiscriminate censorship falls away to opinion. There is no concrete rule that disallows Firsthand Ferguson from being included in the app store, it was deemed inappropriate based on a loose interpretation of app store guidelines.

Apple seem to want the app store to be a magical fantasy land free from any controversial or challenging material, an ethos which runs counter to the fact that apps are the latest frontier of media, and everything deserves the chance to say what it has to say. Previous apps to receive this treatment on similar grounds include Phone Story, an app designed to detail the disturbing truth behind modern mobile phone manufacture and NewsToons, which contained a library of satirical political cartoons by Pulitzer Prize Winner Mark Fiore (although that one was eventually reinstated).

On shakier ground, an app called Drone Strike Alert, which sent push notifications every time an American UAV drone hit a target was also removed. That app was intended from the outset to spread controversy and raise awareness of US military activity, but the developers argued that their main intention was to educate, not vilify.

What Firsthand Ferguson really draws into question is the divide between journalistic ethics and the nature of digital content, particularly VR, which is so young that nobody is even really sure what to do with it yet. The feedback Archer received was very non-specific and represents a need for clearer guidelines and a more regimented approach to app certification. Surely it should be up to the public whether or not they want a virtual insight into a recent, controversial crime, not Apple. It might turn out that the rejection is overturned if the media backlash from this continues to gain traction, and I hope that it does, apps have amazing potential for supporting new kinds of education and journalism, but that potential won't blossom if Apple continue to police them so haphazardly. The app is still available on Google Play.

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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Virtual #Ferguson Crime Scene #App Removed by #Apple Reviewed by Unknown on Sunday, September 27, 2015 Rating: 5

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