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An Unpleasant Voyage

You may have seen mention recently about how Apple is riding roughshod on First Amendment freedoms by censoring a CD-ROM from Voyager that’s bundled with Macs sold into the K-12 education channel. Although we’ve barely seen the CD, here’s the deal as I currently understand it.

Voyager, a well-respected CD-ROM developer, is charging Apple with censorship over Apple’s complaints in regard to an award-winning history CD-ROM called "Who Built America?," based on a two-volume book of the same name. The text looks at the events of the turn of the century from the viewpoint of, and via the eyes and voices of, a number of ordinary people.

In December of 1994, Apple started distributing the CD with Macs sold to the K-12 channel, and sent out over 12,000 copies. Apple started receiving complaints about the content of the CD-ROM and asked Voyager to make some changes to the CD-ROM to respond to the complaints. Voyager refused, and claims that Apple said it would cease to distribute the CD, whereas Apple says it has yet to make a final decision.

Voyager claims that the complaints (which Apple, like other content distributors, may not pass on in original form as a matter of policy) related to the inclusion of discussion of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. Voyager further says that Apple wanted all references to these subjects removed or "greyed out."

Sources inside Apple who evaluated the CD in response to the complaints disagree with Voyager’s characterization, saying that the concern – and the part that Apple asked Voyager to remove – related primarily to a single section in which a woman relates how she received 12 abortions, some using potentially life-threatening procedures. However, other sources claim this material to be general, providing no specific information on how to perform an abortion.

There’s a difference between controversial subjects and dangerous information, and it’s unclear exactly what was said between Apple and Voyager – or how what was said might have been mis-communicated or misunderstood. However, it is clear that Voyager is screaming censorship, which seems misplaced. Apple is making a business decision to provide a product that its customers want. Apple is not saying Voyager can’t distribute the CD as-is (which they do for anyone who wants it). Apple is merely trying to respond to complaints from its customers in K-12 schools, and as we’ve all said at one time or another, the customer is always right. Even should Apple drop the CD, that in no way eliminates the wide availability of the information. Finally, Apple doesn’t distribute many CDs, and some of those no doubt have even more controversial subject matter than this one. Omission of distribution is not censorship, and cessation of distribution in one of many ways seems qualitatively no different.

What’s most confusing is why Voyager is making such a public relations stink. No matter what the level of truth or falsehood in both Voyager’s and Apple’s statements, Voyager has little or nothing to gain from alienating Apple. So in my mind, this fuss is primarily interesting not from a censorship standpoint but from a business standpoint.

The story appeared quickly in a number of large newspapers, leading one to wonder how concerted a public relations campaign Voyager waged. The story certainly makes good copy – David versus Goliath, free speech versus censorship, and so on. Voyager’s Braden Michaels says the move was not done to garner public exposure, but that ignores the fact that it did garner considerable public exposure, in the process probably attracting more attention than any other Voyager CD ever has.

It’s fairly certain that Voyager stands to lose a significant amount of money should Apple drop the Voyager CD from the bundle. These K-12 bundles are reportedly AppleSoft’s second largest money-maker (behind System 7.5) and will supposedly account for an estimated $1.4 million this year. Voyager’s percentage is unknown, but it cannot help but be significant. By rousing the public in an attempt to force Apple to keep distributing the CD, Voyager may be attempting to protect a revenue stream. But even this line of thought has flaws since any such protection would only help in the short term due to the damage it could cause to Voyager’s future relationship with Apple.

Again, Braden Michaels says releasing the story to the press wasn’t a business decision, and again, that doesn’t eliminate the fact that the entire situation stems from a potentially important business deal gone awry.

In the end, I can only conclude that Voyager is making a fuss over what is essentially a broken business deal. On the other hand, Apple is certainly to blame for at least a miscommunication with Voyager, and/or a clumsy mishandling of an obviously delicate situation. As always, it seems that we’re talking about an increasingly large number of shades of grey. Life used to be more black and white.

Information from:
Voyager propaganda
Braden Michaels, Voyager — <[email protected]>
Apple propaganda

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