eMags and Censorship: Where Do We Draw the Line?



It is not a secret that Apple is notoriously strict about “adult content” on the App Store, but a quick search over the weekend showed that Apple’s reach may go beyond just apps and into the catalogs of content providers as well. And since our findings indicate the same content is unavailable on a new Android app, does that indicate that self-censoring to avoid blockage on iOS devices is resulting in entire categories of material being unavailable on mobile devices?

Zinio, the e-magazine company, sells subscriptions to Playboy on their website. But you can’t find Playboy in the iOS or Android Zinio stores. To be fair, Playboy has a separate web app for iOS, so it is plausible that it is a Playboy issue and not an Apple one…but what about other adult options?

Being the dedicated sort, we did a little test here at Gear Diary. We purchased 1,000 Sexcapades to Do If You Dare through Zinio on a Mac. When the same Zinio account was pulled up through the iPad app, the book was not available for download. In fact, it didn’t appear in the iOS library at all! Nor can you search it for purchase on Android … and you won’t be able to view any adult content purchased through Zinio on your Android Zinio app either.

Zinio addressed this in the Help section for their Android and iPad apps:

Q: Why aren’t adult titles available on my iPad?

A: Zinio must abide by the guidelines set forth by Apple in order to have our app available on their iTunes store. One of those guidelines currently prohibits content deemed mature. We are sorry that this title, and similar titles, are not currently available on the iPad. They are, however, viewable on Zinio.com or by installing the Zinio Reader on a conventional laptop or desktop.

Q: Why aren’t adult titles available on my Android device?

A: Zinio must abide by the guidelines set forth by Google in order to have our app available in the Android Market. One of those guidelines currently prohibits content deemed mature. We are sorry that certain titles are not currently available on the Android. They are, however, viewable on Zinio.com or by installing the Zinio Reader on a conventional laptop or desktop.

Now, maybe, just maybe, there’s a publisher restriction here. But it seems like an awfully suspicious coincidence that the ONLY restricted titles were adult ones. First we couldn’t find Playboy, and then the random adult book title chosen wasn’t iOS Zinio Reader compatible? That’s stretching credulity immensely.

So is Zinio purposely not offering adult content on iOS and Android? It sure seems that way. This is not only very “nanny state”, apparently implying that consumers aren’t responsible enough to have adult content on their mobile devices, but it borders on outright censorship. Today adult publications are verboten in Zinio for mobile devices. What’s next? Political magazines? Satire that’s potentially offensive? Religious talk?

Since Zinio sells the content elsewhere, it stands to reason that the issue may be on the mobile device maker side. But let’s consider the implications: Zinio sold you content. Not through Apple or Google’s in-app purchase systems, or even on their devices. Yet you cannot even download the material to your personal device. Not selling it is an iffy point, but not letting someone access their own content is downright repugnant. It’s the digital version of burning books and banning titles.

So where does this end? Are we going to see adult content pruned from iBooks (apparently there is some NC-17 content in their library currently) or Google Books, and what about Amazon and B&N? Neither currently carries adult magazines but they sell ebooks with mature content. What will happen when an “enhanced” adult eBook is released? And who is the arbiter of what can be sold? Are smartphone providers really living in fear of an adult material backlash? And Zinio isn’t afraid to sell mature material since they offer it through desktop options. So someone, whether it is Apple or Google or the Wizard of Oz, is creating this bizarre disconnect; you can read and buy a pornographic magazine on your computer, but not on the tablets that are supposed to replace that computer.

We used to get complaints at Borders about our adult content books and DVDs. But the truth is, we carried them because people bought them. And it was not our place to judge, or hide, or censor. We sold books without prejudice or judgment, and I expect the same courtesy and openness as a digital consumer. To act in any other fashion is to entertain the very frightening possibility that any content is up for grabs…and then suddenly we have always been at war with Eurasia Eastasia.

Categories: News


6 replies

  1. Possible “solutions”:
    1) Put labels next to “adult” titles, saying that they won’t be available on mobile devices – Doesn’t really solve the problem, but at least you’ll be warned ahead of time.
    2) Provide access to the titles – While Zinio would get a couple brownie points, this would just end up with the apps getting pulled (at least according to Zinio) until the content is removed.
    3) Pull the titles from the store completely – No content inequality… by removing the content.
    4) Kill the Zinio apps – The nuclear option, but if there’s no mobile app, there’s no content inequality, is there?

    So, Carly, which solution would you suggest? Unless you have a practical 5th option?

    • No 5th solution, but I think your #1 point is the very least Zinio can and should do. Burying it deep in the FAQs is not the answer. In fact, until we tested it on two devices and Mike dug into the FAQs we couldn’t quite tell who was at fault here or what the issue was. Zinio needs to be more transparent.

      As far as #2, I am still confused as to how Zinio believes they’ll be pulled for allowing them to sync over. Again, Zinio is not selling them on the device itself, simply allowing access to an already purchased item. The various ebookstores all sell “adult” titles, and no one is prevented from syncing those as far as I know. I think Zinio is being chicken, and I think it’s a low blow. Personally I don’t actually care about the content, but I do care that Zinio thinks that even allownig access to already paid-for items is a violation of a store’s terms of service. That’s reaching awfully far, and it has some very unsettling connotations.

      Pulling content or cancelling the Zinio apps isn’t really an option, and honestly I doubt anything labelled “adult” is a very big part of their business. But that’s the rub; it’s not important, and so they roll over immediately…what happens if Maxim ends up on that list? Or some other racier but still not quite porn magazine? It’s a dangerous precedent.

  2. In regards to erotic ebooks being available for purchase on various stores, I suspect the difference is in the medium, ie images versus text. Plenty of apps have *already* been banned for content that is no more risque than what can be seen in the Victoria Secret app.

    Note that Playboy itself doesn’t have an iOS app. They could easily create a temporary one in merely a couple hours by throwing what they have in a UIViewWrapper, and easily enable promotable, reader-pleasing features like offline reading. In the technical aspect, it would be as if Playboy ran their own eMag store that just happened to sell only one title. They wouldn’t have to even sacrifice any profits to Apple if they made you subscribe through their website (per “no subscription method in app” rules set by Apple). So why don’t they?

    Pulling the app most certainly is an option… if they went the Playboy route and created a web app. HTML5 provides for caching, so Zinio could still allow you to store your eBooks on your device. It would be more complicated and expensive than doing it through an app, but if “adult” content made up a sufficient portion of their business then it’d be worth it to them. It’d also make Zinio available to any tablet device without having to create a separate app for it, such as the HP Touchpad and Blackberry PlayBook.

    As for Zinio rolling over immediately, at the end of the day, it seems to me that they’re running it like a business. Unless a large number of users complain, there’s no point in them risking money. I personally don’t use the Zinio app so I don’t know if you can purchase magazines directly from the app. If so, if the app is pulled, that’s lost revenue.

  3. This has an exact replica in the real-world. Wal-Mart also does not sell Playboy; nor does it appear on the news stand in my grocery store. I can still buy the magazine in other stores, but I know that Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Playboy, et. al., not because Playboy doesn’t want it sold there – it is done because they do not allow it in the store. Is this also censorship?

    I am fairly confident that Apple censors adult material because of the extreme popularity of the iPod Touch among non-adults, and the fear of a monstrous backlash should parents discover their children getting access to adult material on these devices. You know that’s exactly what would happen.

    Should Apple and Google allow people to explicitly allow adult material through the apps that are in their stores? Perhaps, but remember that we are a mere three years into the explosion of mobile apps in iOS and Android devices. There is time for these policies to mature. Must things be perfect from the start? Are not these companies allowed to slowly develop these policies with care?

  4. I complained and got the following response:

    Hello,Thank you for contacting Zinio Customer Support. Apple, The Android Market, and some cell phone service providers restrict adult content for mobile devices.  Until they eliminate these restrictions, Ziniocannot provide adult content for the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Android. I’m sorry for any inconvenience. These publications continue to be accessible through the online or offline readers available for flash-compatible devices.  You can download the free software for your Mac, PC here:  https://www.zinio.com/account/download-reader-page.jspYou can check which publications are compatible with your device by going to www.Zinio.com and searching for the title. Each title lists the platforms that it’s compatible with. Keep in mind that iPhone and iPad are considered ‘different platforms.’

  5. I agree that since they are basically becoming dictators on what I can or cannot see on my devices that I will discontinue any subscriptions I have with them. It now becomes an infringement upon our free rights .