Apple – stop defacing dictionaries and reread Orwell

August 7, 2009


– Mic Wright is Online News Editor at Stuff. The views expressed are his own –

When Amazon got rightly torn to shreds for remotely killing copies of 1984 on the Kindle, I thought it would be the most idiotic tech story of the year. But I was wrong. Apple’s just upped the ante by banning rude words from a dictionary application – stripping us of the virtual equivalent of looking up obscenities in French class.

Ninjawords Dictionary, a dictionary app from the creators of the excellent website of the same name, is available from the iTunes Store for £1.19. When you go to download it you will be faced with a warning that it “might contain material objectionable to children under 17″. Based on conversations I overhear on the train daily, I think that’s unlikely.

That warning is just the start of Apple’s interference with the dictionary. It’s also made the creators omit words it considers objectionable, such as the “c-word”, as my nan would put it. That’s right app fans, Apple just censored a dictionary.

Go in to any school and you’ll find English dictionaries on the shelf, accessible to children and absolutely chock full of “objectionable” words. Best start burning them because Apple’s made us realise that words can definitely hurt you. Or at least, your sales in the iTunes App Store.

Initially Apple refused to approved the app because it contained rude words, so the developers made it possible only to find them if you explicitly (pun intended) searched for them. That wasn’t enough – Apple wanted them removed completely.

Apple emailed the developers to remind them that: “Applications must not contain obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs etc)…” Finally it told Ninjawords that the only way the app could make it into the iTunes App Store was with a +17 age rating.

Even after Apple had forced the developer to sanitise the dictionary, it was not allowed to be made available to everyone. This confused and contradictory approach to approving apps is becoming a common occurrence but it’s disappointing from a company with the marketing skill of Apple.

In 1984, Apple produced and aired a one time only TV ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, the “1984” spot featured an unnamed heroine smashing the screen on which a Big Brother-like dictator was lecturing a docile lecture hall. It made major allusions to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and was an unqualified hit.

It’s time someone in Apple got their copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four out again and had a little read. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry Of Truth amending records and articles to make them conform with Big Brother’s will. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Protecting children from porn and violence content is one thing, erasing words from a dictionary is quite another. Come on Apple, use some common sense.


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I don’t understand this article. The author is supposed to be “online news editor” at some gadgetry mag and should surely have access to the information that is disseminated on the internet?

Apple quite clearly stated that the dictionary was refused because the words concerned were going beyond of what you find in an ordinary dictionary, and the application wasn’t outright rejected and no censorship was demanded.

“Apple … 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. ” (according to Phil Schiller)

Does Mr Wright have any information to the contrary, or does it show that kneejerk journalism is ruling the internet with implications just as serious as any ‘censorship’ he is accusing others of? And does he imply that the need for ‘common sense’ only to others?

Posted by Bonsai | Report as abusive

Reuters—learn to use an em dash.

Posted by Brian Kessler | Report as abusive

Hi Bonsai,

This piece was written before Apple released its statement about NinjaWords and the app store approval process for it. It was published on and later picked up by Reuters. I was not aware that it was going to be published here and was not able to alter it to include the information that appeared later.

I would say that there are still serious issues with the way Apple approves applications but you are correct to state that this piece has been overtaken by other events. It’s worth noting that this was an opinion piece and that it was therefore making use of the information available at the point it was written.



Posted by Mic Wright | Report as abusive