Ninjawords: iPhone Dictionary, Censored by Apple

[Update, 6 Aug 2009: Please see the follow-up to this story, which includes a response from Apple senior vice-president Phil Schiller.]

Two years ago I linked to a web site called Ninjawords — a fast, simple online dictionary backed by a good data source (Wiktionary).

The developers behind Ninjawords, Matchstick Software, have released an iPhone version, currently available from the App Store for just $2. Here’s how they describe it:

Ninjas are three things:

  1. They’re smart
  2. They’re quick
  3. They’re deadly accurate

Ninjawords is a dictionary for the iPhone built on these principles. We made it because we saw that the low-cost dictionaries on the App Store are slow, cluttered, and all use the same bad data source (WordNet) for their definitions.

Ninjawords takes a different approach. We use awesome, fresh, high quality data with more words and synonyms than you can throw a ninja star at. And best of all, when you look up your words, they all stay on the page. No need to flip back and forth between different pages as you look up multiple words.

It’s a terrific app — pretty much exactly what I’ve always wanted in an iPhone dictionary, and, yes, with both a better user experience and better dictionary content than the other low-cost dictionaries in the App Store.

But Ninjawords for iPhone suffers one humiliating flaw: it omits all the words deemed “objectionable” by Apple’s App Store reviewers, despite the fact that Ninjawords carries a 17+ rating.

Apple censored an English dictionary.

A dictionary. A reference book. For words contained in all reasonable dictionaries. For words contained in dictionaries that are used every day in elementary school libraries and classrooms.

Amazon, of course, does not restrict the sale of English dictionaries, either in print or for the Kindle. The Kindle, in fact, ships from the factory with a built-in dictionary, The New Oxford American Dictionary — the very same dictionary used by Mac OS X’s built-in Dictionary app. Like any good dictionary, it contains listing for all of the words deemed “objectionable” in Ninjawords by the App Store reviewers.

Even Walmart, notorious for its censorship of “objectionable” music and movies, neither restricts nor places warning labels on dictionaries. Apple’s App Store review team makes Walmart seem liberal by comparison.

I interviewed Phil Crosby, one of Ninjawords’s developers, via email.

The App Store approval process for Ninjawords took two months. Matchstick submitted the first build on May 13; it was rejected two days later. Says Crosby, “Our app was crashing on the latest beta of iPhone OS 3.0. We quickly fixed this issue and resubmitted.”

Matchstick did not hear back from Apple until May 30. Then, says Crosby: “We were rejected for objectionable content. They provided screenshots of the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ showing up in our dictionary’s search results. What’s interesting is that we spent a good deal of time making it so that you must type vulgar words in their entirety, and only then will we show you suggestions in the search results. For instance, if you type ‘fuc’, you will not see ‘fuck’ as a suggestion. This is in contrast to all other dictionaries we’re aware of on the App Store (including Dictionary.com’s application), which will show you ‘fuck’ in the search results for ‘fuc’, ‘motherfucker’ for ‘mother’, etc.

In other words, the App Store reviewer(s) explicitly searched for curse words they already knew, and found them. (Reminiscent of the reviewer who rejected the e-book reader Eucalyptus after searching for, and finding, the Gutenberg edition of The Kama Sutra.)

This is the rejection email Matchstick Software received from Apple:

Thank you for submitting Ninjawords to the App Store. We’ve reviewed Ninjawords and determined that we cannot post this version of your iPhone application to the App Store at this time because it contains objectionable content which is in violation of Section 3.3.12 from the iPhone SDK Agreement which states:

“Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

Parental Controls have been announced for iPhone OS 3.0. It would be appropriate to resubmit your application for review once this feature is available.

Regards,

iPhone Developer Program

On July 1, the app was rejected for the third time. Crosby says, “Someone from Apple called Dave [Crosby’s Matchstick Software colleague] to tell him that we were being rejected again for illicit content (he provided the single example ‘cunt’, which we had indeed missed in our filters), and no matter what we did to our dictionary, it will have to be 17+ to make it to the App Store.”

In other words, not only must the dictionary be censored — a dictionary — but even after being purged of “objectionable” words it would only be considered with a 17+ rating. Even after agreeing to these terms, it took another two weeks for Ninjawords to appear in the App Store. According to Crosby, “We gave in and said fine, hoping that we could get on the App Store immediately since the solution to their rejection was a simple metadata change. However, the App Store reviewer would have none of that. We would have to resubmit an entirely new binary and get to the back of the queue before they would look at it again.”

Ninjawords appeared in the App Store on July 13.

The list of omitted words includes some which have utterly non-objectionable senses: ass, snatch, pussy, cock, and even screw. (Ass and cock appear throughout the King James Bible.)

Every time I think I’ve seen the most outrageous App Store rejection, I’m soon proven wrong. I can’t imagine what it will take to top this one.

Apple requires you to be 17 years or older to purchase a censored dictionary that omits half the words Steve Jobs uses every day.

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