Friday, January 22, 2021

Subjectiveness of app reviews: Viral Leaders Trump & Johnson (satirical fun game) approved by Google, inexplicably found objectionable by Apple

[Update on 02/09/2021] A subsequent, refocused version of Viral Leaders, the "Impeachment Edition" (on the occasion of the Senate impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump), was approved by Apple. [/Update]

One of the issues raised in the Coronavirus Reporter v. Apple antitrust complaint in the District of New Hampshire is the allegation that Apple's app reviews are "arbitrary and capricious" to the extent that one app might be rejected though a similar or more problematic app is approved. I've also heard people say this about Google, and I can prove at least an inconsistency with respect to the application of its rule on COVID-related metadata, where a game is allowed to use the term "pandemic" in its Google Play Store description though this is expressly prohibited by Google unless an app is (co-)published by a governmental or recognized healthcare entity, which isn't the case.

Some criticize Apple and Google for collecting 30% of some companies' in-app revenues while others get a free ride even though, as those critics argue, they should be subjected to that "app store tax" as well. I haven't formed an opinion on that assertion yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was true.

One week ago, Apple's App Review Department sent my app development company the following email:

"Your app, Viral Leaders Trump & Johnson 1.0.0 (0), has been reviewed, but cannot be made available for TestFlight beta testing.

"For details, or to contact App Store Review, visit Resolution Center in App Store Connect."

In App Store Connect, Apple merely referenced its app review guideline 1.1 Objectionable Content. No further explanation given--and we weren't even allowed to test that app via the TestFlight beta version distribution system.

Google, however, approved it about 24 hours ago for the Google Play Store. It had previously been approved for testing on the 17th (Sunday).

Seriously, there is nothing objectionable about Viral Leaders Trump & Johnson. It's simply a special edition of my Viral Days real-time strategy game. In Viral Days, you take care of little cartoony people walking the streets of a fictional town during a virus pandemic. In that game you can buy and distribute masks, quarantine or hospitalize people, disperse groups, and impose lockdowns. It comes with 25 levels. Now, Viral Leaders has just one level, and features cartoony versions of ex-president Donald Trump and British prime minister Boris Johnson. Both famously caught a virus last year after downplaying its significance. In Viral Leaders, they spread the virus to ordinary citizens, so you best send them home as soon as you can afford it (2,000 virtual coins).

The politicians stop from time to time to say something. Many of those quotes are real, while others are just fun, but there's nothing offensive in the game.

Here are a few social media posts so you can see how far this is from "objectionable content":

When we submitted the app, we provided to Apple a complete list of all the things those politicians say in the game. If Apple had taken issue with any particular ones of those utterances, they'd have let us know. So Apple's concern must have been more fundamental.

But what is it? It can'be about the virus context, given that one of the most popular games on the App Store, named Plague Inc., is traditionally (they now call it the "main game") about "infect[ing] the world". By contrast, Viral Leaders, just like Viral Days, is all about preventing the spread of the virus.

It can't be about poking fun at Trump either. In my game, all that one can do to him is click on him, spend 2,000 virtual coins, and then he says "I'm fired!" and goes home. There are various Trump fun apps on the App Store, and at least one of them, named Slap Donald Trump, even depicts and thereby encourages physical violence against him. The icon of that app (which you can see if you click on the link I just provided) shows a photo of Donald Trump's face, a hand hitting him, and that side of his face turning red. If Slap Donald Trump is allowed, how in the world can Viral Leaders Trump & Johnson be deemed objectionable?

I immediately thought of this when I read in the Coronavirus Reporter v. Apple complaint that "the Apple App Store violates antitrust law by disallowing third-party applications using arbitrary and capricious standards."

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