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Drone-Tracking App Gets No Traction From Apple

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan in 2010. Apple has rejected an app that tracks U.S. drone strikes around the world. (AP)

Cellphones have ushered in an age of interruption, with apps that notify you when you're mentioned on Facebook or Twitter, or even if your favorite ball team scores a run.

But Apple is the ultimate arbiter of what kinds of notifications iPhone users can receive — and some apps just don't pass muster with the tech giant.

Take Josh Begley's idea, for example. Begley created an app that sends a push notification — or beep — to an iPhone whenever there is a U.S. drone strike anywhere in the world.

Apple blocked it from its App Store.

"They said the app has excessively objectionable or crude content," Begley says. "Which I found somewhat curious, because it is literally just a republishing of news — just tracking when strikes happen."

The app contains no gory pictures or classified information. But Begley admits he's trying to make a political point about these strikes with his app.

"[Drone strikes] are changing the face of warfare," he says, "and there are serious questions. And I think that it's worth having a conversation about it."

Apple, however, didn't agree.

The company routinely blocks apps from its store that it finds objectionable. There's no porn allowed. Hate speech is verboten. In 2009, Apple blocked an app created by a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist (later, Steve Jobs called that a mistake).

Apple has also removed apps encouraging people to take a stand against gay marriage, and another that promised to help gays become straight.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, says Apple, as a private company, has the right to sell — or not sell — whatever it wants.

And while Calo says he respects that, he adds that "in these kinds of borderline examples, they ought to be finding in favor of free speech, just as good corporate citizens setting an example worldwide."

As more of our public conversations take place inside privately managed digital communities like Apple's App Store or Facebook, Calo says, these kinds of corporate decisions will carry even more weight.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There are apps on the iPhone that will send you a message when news breaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION TONE)

BLOCK: When you're mentioned on Facebook or Twitter.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION TONE)

BLOCK: Or even if your favorite ball team scores a run.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION TONE)

BLOCK: But as NPR's Steve Henn reports, not all apps that send you messages are allowed in the Apple app store.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Josh Begley created an app that sends push notifications to an iPhone, when there's a U.S. drone strike anywhere in the world. Apple blocked it from its app store.

JOSH BEGLEY: And they said that the app has excessively objectionable or crude content - which I found somewhat curious because it literally is a republishing of news; just tracking when strikes happen.

HENN: There are no gory pictures, no classified information; but Begley admits he's trying to make a political point about these strikes.

BEGLEY: It is changing the face of warfare, and there are serious questions. And I think that it's worth having a conversation about.

HENN: Apple didn't agree. And Apple routinely blocks apps from its store that it finds objectionable. There's no porn. Hate speech is verboten. In 2009, Apple blocked an app created by a Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist. Later Steve Jobs called that a mistake. Apple has removed apps encouraging people to take stands against gay marriage, and one that promised to help gays become straight. Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, says as a private company, Apple has the right to sell - or not sell - whatever it wants. And he respects that.

RYAN CALO: But I think that these kinds of borderline examples, they ought to be finding in favor of free speech - just as good corporate citizens, setting an example worldwide.

HENN: Calo says as more of our public conversations take place inside privately managed digital communities - like the app store, or Facebook - these kinds of corporate decisions will carry even more weight.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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