Is the gatekeeper model of information access the new normal?

Recently, Apple once again got caught rejecting an app from the online App Store. Without any other information, a single app being rejected or pulled from the store is unremarkable -- Apple rejects thousands of apps that don’t meet developer guidelines. What is significant about this one is a combination of the content of the app and the reasons it was rejected. The app in question is “Phone Story,” an education game that seeks to tell consumers the true story of the phone they’re using to play it, from the conditions in the Chinese factories where the phones are made to the amount of electronic waste generated by our fast consumer cycles.

It’s just the latest in a line of high-profile, questionable calls Apple has made regarding apps sold through their app store, which unless you jailbreak your iPhone or iOS device, is the only source for apps.

The true problem is the “Gatekeeper” model of internet and information access that is rapidly becoming the new normal. As web access gets easier and more mobile platforms take off, much of the internet is accessed through apps or other third party platforms of some sort (This is not exclusive to Apple, all smartphones have some type of app platform, although Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are the most popular.), and this gives a remarkable amount of control to the people controlling the marketplace.

Though most prevalent with mobile apps and devices, the gatekeeper model is also present when accessing the internet via browser. Take YouTube, for instance. Easily the biggest web platform for video distribution, YouTube has extensive controls over what does and does not reach the public. Some of this is governed by partnerships with media owners who control how and where their content is re-posted, others are community guidelines enforced through a combination of user-generated reporting and content filters. Though it may not feel that way, YouTube and other widely used sites are private communities. When you sign up for an account, part of the agreement is community guidelines, which gives the business control over what you are allowed to put out through their service.

The standards for what does and what does not get through can change, sometimes on an individual basis which potentially depends on a number of factors, including public pressure. Apple has even removed or approved a number of apps after the public learned of the story. Videos on YouTube are at the mercy of users and the easily-accessible flag buttons, which are unfortunately too often presumed to be accurate reporting, and lack of a function appeals system, coupled with inaccurate reporting of why users’ content or accounts are removed from the service, leave Youtube users with little or no recourse to protest.

On the surface, gatekeepers can look like new services enabling communication with the world around us.  However, gatekeepers, whether acting deliberately, recklessly, arbitrarily, or incompetently, can pose significant hurdles to independent creators in the marketplace, who must rely on large, gatekeeper-type platforms such as the Iphone app store and YouTube to distribute their works to a broader audience.

Image: "As strong as its weakest link" by Shoveling Son shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Blog editors: Art Neill & Shaun Spalding

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