Apple has removed 1,000 apps from its online store in the wake of a large-scale ratings scam perpetrated by a Chinese developer:
This scam was so effective that the applications regularly rose to the tops of charts. One, called ColorMagic, even made it into the Staff Favorites section of the store (which brings some doubt as to whether these are actually staff picks at all).
Apple is to be congratulated for taking action. It’s also to be condemned for failing to have controls in place that were capable of discovering and exposing this wide-spread fraud. Whether Apple is faking its own “Staff Favorites” picks or not, Apple has an obligation to police its own marketplace for the sake of Apple’s users.
Customer ratings are a proven means of building user interest in web sites. Note, however, that I do not say they are a proven means of rating products. In fact, customer ratings as a marketing device have been exploited from the very outset, and perhaps nowhere more openly than on Amazon.com.
Chances are, however, that you already know this. You factor it in to the reviews you read, and you trust your instincts to tell you when a review doesn’t ring true. In fact, you probably believe that you are smarter than the con artists.
The problem is that this confidence in your own superiority is the same lever that many con artists use against their victims. Just as stock prices already reflect all anticipated future events, con artists anticipate all future responses to their cons, and quite often intentionally position themselves as less competent in order to exploit the ego of the mark. In theory, this is why the SEC, FBI and other policing organizations exist: to pit law-enforcement experts against expert criminals.
There are no lawless societies. The are no functioning societies without police. There are no societies in which the citizens are all good. And that includes the Apple app store. Customer ratings are primarily not about providing useful feedback, but rather about encouraging and profiting from an emotional attachment between users and the sites they post on. Which means customer ratings are as valid, authoritative and reliable as Twitter tweets, Facebook updates, and MySpace comments.
I say this because Apple’s gross failings in this case — and they are appalling in every regard — expose both the limits of crowd-sourced information about product quality and Apple’s own lack of interest in protecting customers from fraud. The real crime in all this, apart from another Chinese developer working hard to reinforce China’s standing as the Nigeria of the East, is that it took outside observers to crowd-source Apple’s policing functions.
In short, Apple failed to protect App Store users, it failed to protect honest app developers, and it failed to protect itself. Then again, you still get to say what you think, and you get the satisfaction of knowing you’re smarter than Apple.
Apple and the criminals will have to settle for making money.
— Mark Barrett