"Whenever we receive customer complaints about objectionable content we review them," an Apple spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "If we find these apps contain inappropriate material we remove them and request the developer make any necessary changes in order to be distributed by Apple."
Letters that Apple has sent to creators of adult-themed apps state that customer complaints prompted the company to change its policy and to ban "overtly sexual content" from its App Store.
A series of such complaints can be found on Apple's support forum. One of the posts states that Apple's parental controls don't work as advertised.
"The [parental control] settings [in iTunes] do stop me from purchasing the apps," complains one Apple customer. "The 'Buy App/Get App' button is grayed out so I cannot get the app, but I am still able to preview the app, including screen shots of graphic content along with detailed descriptions."
Other discussion participants advise sending feedback to Apple through a Web submission form and the Parents Television Council is urging supporters to contact Apple as well.
Developers have been making similar complaints to Apple, but their concerns are also related to the volume of sexually-themed apps, which can represent as many as a third of the apps in certain iTunes App Store categories. The spam-scale proliferation of these apps ends up making other apps less discoverable.
Developers have treated the profusion of adult-oriented apps as a bug. It's a clever tactic because Apple has a process in place to deal with bugs and the company has a special bug reporting form that's limited to registered Apple developers. A complaint filed through regular feedback channels may have a hard time standing out among the thousands of spam messages and questions Apple receives daily.
Though Apple does not make bug reports public, a site called Open Radar hosts an open Apple bug database for the convenience of the developer community. Some developers choose to cross-post their Apple bug reports so that the information is available to the developer community. Several bug reports frame the sex app problem from a developer perspective.
"Regardless of parental control ratings, 17+ rated apps show up when casually browsing the app store," writes Jiva Devoe, an author of iPhone development books. "Unlike music and movies, these apps typically have icons, names and screenshots that border on obscene just by themselves. It's gotten so bad that it's actually not possible to allow a typical young child to browse the app store by themselves without them being assaulted by various boob/softcore porn apps."
Devoe argues that Apple needs to create a "red light district" for apps, to keep other app store categories free of such apps.
Another developer writes, "I'm planning to deploy 120 iPod touches to the school I work in. As it stands, I cannot give the students access to the iTunes store, even just to browse."
But Apple's purge may create as many problems as it solves. What qualifies as "overtly sexual content" isn't clear and outside the App Store, other provocative or overtly sexual iTunes content remains available, in the form of podcasts, music videos, films and TV shows, and explicit songs.
Developer Gary Simmons made this very point last July in a bug report, noting Apple's content ratings address some problems, only to create different ones.
"Why are applications still being rejected based on content?" asks Simmons. "Apple sells movies and music on iTunes that have more explicit content than some applications that are rejected. Additionally I truly feel that all content (other than content which is manifestly illegal) should be available for iPhone users. If Apple is unwilling to sell that content, the distribution system should be expanded to allow applications to be sold in other ways."