The front of the 2019 iPad Air
Enlarge / The front of the 2019 iPad Air.

Samuel Axon

Earlier this week, Apple notified app developers of a revised set of App Store review guidelines—the rules by which Apple curates its iOS/iPadOS, tvOS, watchOS, and macOS App Stores.

Among many other things, the revised rules expand the definition of what constitutes a spam app, clarify that developers are able to use push notifications to serve ads to users (provided users explicitly opt in to them), and limit submissions of certain types of apps to trusted organizations in regulated or sensitive industries.

The most controversial of these changes has been the clear statement that developers can serve ads to users via push notifications. At one point in the past, Apple’s guidelines stated that push notifications “should not be used for advertising, promotions, or direct marketing purposes or to send sensitive personal or confidential information.” Now the guidelines state:

Push Notifications must not be required for the app to function, and should not be used to send sensitive personal or confidential information. Push Notifications should not be used for promotions or direct marketing purposes unless customers have explicitly opted in to receive them via consent language displayed in your app’s UI, and you provide a method in your app for a user to opt out from receiving such messages.

Pixel Envy’s Nick Heer noted that Apple was already failing to enforce the original language, so this seems like capitulation to what some developers have been doing for a while, perhaps in response to difficulty policing this consistently. Heer also points out that there is not currently a pre-baked way for developers to sort between types of notifications, so the “you provide a method in your app for a user to opt out from receiving such messages” language may still curb some of this behavior.

Developers would have to architect their own ways of distinguishing between advertisement notifications and others. Some will likely choose to simply explain to users that ads will be part of the push notifications deal and give users the ability to opt out of notifications entirely with that disclaimer. Others will deem it too much trouble to develop a solution to delineate between message types, and therefore will simply stop serving ads via notifications. Others still will put in the extra effort so as to continue pushing ads as before without risking users turning off notifications all together.

Users will continue to have the option to disable all notifications from an app or simply stop using it if they do not like its behavior.

In other changes, Apple has signaled to developers that all new apps must be submitted using the iOS or iPadOS 13 SDK starting April 30, and named April 30 as a deadline to implement Sign in with Apple in apps that are already offering other universal sign-on services—something Apple warned was coming many months ago already. The review guidelines stipulate that developers must treat users with respect when responding to reviews in the App Store, that fortune-telling or dating apps will be rejected “unless they provide a unique, high-quality experience,” and that developers may no longer use custom demands or suggestions that users review the app and instead “use the provided API.”

Another notable development is clarification that “apps that provide services in highly regulated fields (such as banking and financial services, healthcare, and air travel) or that require sensitive user information should be submitted by a legal entity that provides the services, and not by an individual developer.”

And in related news, CNBC has spoken with app developers who claim Apple is rejecting some apps related to the coronavirus that aren’t coming from trusted orgs like hospitals or governments in order to prevent the proliferation of apps that could spread misinformation. CNBC cited four developers, noting that some of the rejected apps “used public data from reliable sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) to create dashboards or live maps.” However, Apple may have concluded that exclusively allowing select authoritative sources is the only way to battle misinformation comprehensively. (Google’s Play store currently and intentionally shows no results at all for searches for “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.)

Platform companies have recently battled snake oil and misinformation about the coronavirus and related topics. For example, Amazon made a move to ban products that claim to cure COVID-19 and information platforms have sought to halt the spread of false, potentially panic-inducing information, or bad information that jeopardizes consumers’ health. That said, Apple’s actions on this have contributed to some developers’ ongoing frustration about transparency and consistency in App Store curation.

Apple has made the full App Store review guidelines available on its developer website.