Apple App Review says “maybe”: the whims of trillion-dollar gatekeepers
Yesterday, I wrote about how Apple’s refusal to update a couple of fields in their database has impacted the future of Better Blocker, the tracker blocker that Laura and I build at our tiny two-person not-for-profit, Small Technology Foundation.
I also shared our plan for dealing with this situation.
Yesterday, we were at Step 3 of our plan. We’d submitted the version 2020.1 updates to Better for macOS and iOS from our old developer account and we were waiting for Apple to approve them.
Today, we are half-at step 4 because Apple has approved the macOS app and rejected the iOS app.
Why did they reject the iOS app?
Because of the metadata.
The exact same metadata that they approved for the macOS version.
Specifically, the App Store reviewer for the iOS version of Better Blocker took offence at the following description in the What’s New metadata, stating that it failed Guideline 2.3 - Performance - Accurate Metadata (“We noticed that your app’s metadata includes the following information, which is not relevant to the app’s content and functionality:”)
If you’d like to understand why we’ve been forced into taking this decision, please read on.
We (Laura and Aral) released Better in June 2016 for iOS and shortly thereafter for macOS. Back then, we were living in the UK and had a not-for-profit there called Article 12 (Ind.ie). Our Apple Developer account was registered with this organisation.
Fast forward four years and we now live in Ireland. Last year, we set up a separate not-for-profit here called Small Technology Foundation. It’s still just the two of us and we’re still working on technology to protect human rights and democracy.
Since we’re self-funded and have limited resources, we cannot keep both organisations going so we are in the process of shutting down Article 12 (Ind.ie) in the UK. This means, sadly, that we cannot keep updating Better under our current Apple Developer account. Instead, we have to remove it from sale from our Ind.ie account and upload it as a new app from our Small Technology Foundation account.
If that sounds silly to you, you’re right, it is. Someone at Apple could have written a couple of SQL statements and saved us this effort. But, sadly, that is not what happened and we have been left with no other choice.
We reached out to Apple to ask if they would simply move our developer account to Small Technology Foundation. Computer said “no.” We also asked if we could migrate the apps to our new account. Computer said “no.” (You cannot move apps between accounts if they use iCloud features. Better uses iCloud to sync your ‘Do Not Block’ list between devices.)
We even wrote a blog post and appealed to anyone at Apple who might be able to help. But no one got in touch. So we really did try everything we could to avoid this. We’d rather not do this either: it means we’re going to lose over three years of history and our placement on the App Store and probably upset a bunch of people in the process.
We hope you understand why we had to do this and we hope that you will continue to support us in our work to create technology that protects human rights and democracy.
If you have any questions or want to get in touch with us, please email us at email@example.com.”
They also took issue with the following copy, failing it under Guideline 2.3.10 - Performance - Accurate Metadata (“We noticed that your app includes the following information in the “What’s New” text, which is not relevant to the app’s content and functionality:”)
- Due to Apple’s rules, the only way we can keep Better on the App Store is to remove it from sale from our Ind.ie developer account and submit it as a new app under our Small Technology Foundation account.
So what happens next?
I just submitted the following appeal to Apple and I am now waiting for their response:
Thank you for your feedback. I’m confused, the exact same metadata was accepted for our macOS app (https://apps.apple.com/us/app/better-blocker/id1121192229?mt=12) and it is now live on the App Store. Do the iOS App Store and macOS App Store have different criteria for Guideline 2.3?
For the sake of consistency, please either:
- Approve this update.
- Issue an after-the-fact rejection of the macOS app and remove it from sale.
I would urge you to take the first step as the metadata included is entirely relevant to this update and is the sole reason for it and explains to our customers why we are forced to take a step that will negatively impact their experience with our app.
I look forward to hearing from you and hope that you’re having a good week so far.
The moral of the story
Big Tech will tell you that they are objective; that they are governed by guidelines, protocols, and algorithms… all very mundane, professional, and inevitable.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Big Tech are fiefdoms governed by people like you or me. The decisions they take are anything but objective. The specific brand of technology they peddle and the vector they paint for ‘progress’ isn’t inevitable, it is arbitrary. It’s based on experiences, beliefs (or lack thereof), whims, and countless other subjective aspects that make the people who take decisions at these little monarchies take them in the manner in which they do. And as this little incident elucidates, even with policies, guidelines, and mission statements, two different people can take entirely different decisions given exactly the same input.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is: do we want a world governed by the whims of a handful of individuals in Big Tech or one where we each get a voice?
If you’re happy with the former, you don’t have to do anything. Carry on as you are. You’re all set because that’s where we are today.
If you’re not happy with it, consider what the alternative could look like. To me, the alternative to Big Tech is simple: it’s Small Tech.