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Apple Blocks Health Care Advocacy App

BY Matthew Burton | Tuesday, September 29 2009

Apple has taken heat recently for blocking seemingly benign and, in some case very helpful, iPhone apps submissions--most notably Google's Voice app.

Now, an independent developer is claiming that his app, iSinglePayer, has been blocked by Apple for being "politically charged." iSinglePayer is a sort of "lobby Congress for health care reform via my phone" wizard: it shows you US and worldwide healthcare statistics, determines your senators and representatives via GPS, shows the campaign contributions they've received from the health care industry, and lets you easily call their congressional offices.

The developer says that Apple called him to explain the rejection instead of providing it in writing. Apparently, Apple wants to protect itself not just from the risks of promoting political causes, but from the backlash of such protection as well.

(UPDATE: They have formalized this practice as well. It's old news that Apple protects its iPhone development terms with non-disclosure agreements. What I didn't know is that they're doing the same to their rejection notices.)

I understand if Apple does not want to embroil itself in the dirtiest political fight in modern history. I'm concerned, though, that the app store's policy regarding such tools will default to "No" simply for the sake of consistency. What if the same app were appropriated for a cause that is less volatile and divisive? Or what if it were not cause-specific and were simply an iPhone implementation of ShiftSpace's Yeas & Nays, which identifies and calls your reps from a browser?

The drawing line is between politics and policy, and Apple should be careful not to overstep beyond politics and begin barring purely policy-oriented and agnostic advocacy apps as well. This technology is not about health care, but about engaging people in their governance. That is a cause that no person or company should oppose. Unfortunately for iSinglePayer, its submission came a few months late: a year ago, it might have been possible to see health care primarily as a policy matter. No longer.

(UPDATE: The developer is suspicious that his app would not have been blocked had it been submitted by a larger organization. The evidence suggests this, but at least Apple's logic is consistent: they don't want to take a political stand, regardless of the cause. Had the app been submitted by MoveOn, that would have been unavoidable: either way, Apple's decision would have been politicized. So instead of ruffling a whole bunch of feathers on the left or right, maybe it's best to ruffle just this guy's and hope it goes over with minimum damage.)