App Store adult content: Now you see it, now you don't

Update 2: Apple has officially confirmed that it removed the application in question and that it will not allow applications with pornographic content on the App Store.

Update: The developer of Hottest Girls has stated on his Web site that the app's immense popularity has overwhelmed his server, via which the images are apparently downloaded. The application is temporarily "sold out" while the problem is resolved, and the developer claims the adult content will still be there when the app returns to the store. More details as they arise.

While many presumed that iPhone 3.0’s beefed-up parental restrictions and the introduction of app ratings marked the dawn of a new, less-restrictive era for the App Store, the sun has apparently reversed course, Superman-style. In the space of a few hours, the honestly-named Hottest Girls app added adult content and was subsequently struck down, faster than a speeding bullet, by the hurtling meteor known as Apple’s App Store approvals.

While the $2 Hottest Girls app has been around for a while—reviews for it on the App Store date back to early May—the company just added adult content, in the form of topless and nude pictures, to its library of images, which previously had contained only pictures of clothed—albeit scantily—women. Despite carrying a 17+ rating that warns of “Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity” and “Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes” (the highest the App Store allows), Apple still removed the app from the store on Thursday.

In my role as intrepid reporter, I graciously volunteered to sacrifice my dignity and my $2 by attempting to buy the application in question.

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While searching the App Store no longer yields any listing of the program, you can still access it via a direct iTunes link. Upon trying to buy the app, iTunes asked me to confirm that I was 17 or older—oh, clever, Apple; you got me!—before telling me the application was no longer available.

So what gives? Well, when Apple first announced the App Store, way back in March 2008, it listed a number of limitations that it would impose, among them a no-pornography rule. With the removal of Hottest Girls, it appears that Apple has decided the “no porn” limitation trumps the rating system it recently put in place.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop Apple from removing the app: Apple’s store, Apple’s (often-murky) rules. That said, should the company allow content along these lines? Adult-themed applications would probably sell well, but there’s more than just sales to account for, especially given that the App Store is primarily still a sales-driver for iPhone and iPod touch hardware.

While Apple might make money from the sale of contentious applications, there’s the inevitable publicity cost as well. Allowing porn on the iPhone, the—if you’ll excuse the term—hottest handheld platform around, comes with a cost of associating Apple’s name with pornography, at least in the minds of many consumers. All this despite the fact that such content is widely available elsewhere on the Web to any teenager with access to Google and an imagination.

How could this hurt Apple? Take the controversy over the Baby Shaker application that slipped through the approval-process cracks earlier this year. While personally I would be hard-pressed to compare the two topics in terms of severity, it’s not a far stretch to suggest that there would be people out there happy to use porn on the iPhone as an opportunity to scream about Apple—and by extension, other parties—condoning immoral behavior.

Apple’s worked hard to cultivate a family-friendly image—let's not forget that K-12 education remains a sizable market for the company—so it’s going to think twice about making any moves that could compromise that perception. The hit the company takes in publicity from removing this application is a fraction of the whirlwind it'd reap if it threw the gates wide open. Right or wrong, it’s Apple’s ball-game, and the company knows that its image is worth immeasurably more than the 30 percent it takes home for application sales.

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