Apple censors Ninjawords iPhone dictionary app (UPDATED)

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; 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.

5 Comments on Apple censors Ninjawords iPhone dictionary app (UPDATED)

  1. Therefore, Mac OS should be sold with a “parental advisory: explicit content” ticket. I’ve looked up in the Dictionary application, which is included in the Apple system, and not only it includes words like “pussy”, “fuck” or “dick”: they are also indexed, so that any kid can unawarely find a lascivious vagina when he or she is looking for information about Alexander Pushkin. Intolerable. We should make Apple know that we won’t let our children to freely access to such a pornographic operative system. By the way, I’m thinking that Apple’s photographic professional software, “Aperture”, may contain, in its name, a subliminal suggestion to promiscuity. We need to find out.

  2. WTF is up with Apple and their App Store????

    This silliness they engage in on a seemingly weekly basis is just bizarre.

    What baffles me is that the American Heritage 4th Edition I bought for my iPod Touch has all those words on the list along with their slang definitions.

    Exactly what has Apple achieved here?

    This is the major thing that bugs me about the App Store. Apple should not even be a gatekeeper that determines which apps or content that users can place on their device.

    Apps for the iPhone/Touch should be available from other vendors such as Handango or PocketGear or directly from the creator in addition to the App Store.

    Are people just too busy slamming Amazon and the Kindle to see that this is just as nefarious (more so in my opinion)? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the lawsuits? Where’s the same sort of venom Bezos is subjected to?

  3. Majorinus You are kidding? don’t you?

  4. One hopes that Apple does not withdraw the fabulous free app, Rarely do you even have to type in the whole word, since it starts suggesting early on. It also speaks the word if you click on its microphone icon, making the “bad” words even more potentially titillating.

    The censorship of a dictionary is about as ludicrous as Apple has gotten so far in its Draconian and inconsistant approval process. How about all the fart apps? Those are ok, and a dictionary is not? Ye gods!

  5. Jay, I believe Majorinus is using “sarcasm”
    (I’d link to a dictionary definition but then Apple might read my post and revoke my Apple ID…. 😉

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