An inside look at Apple’s Executive Review Board that makes difficult approval decisions about controversial App Store submissions

Executive Review Board, headed by Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, is the name of the department at the Cupertino firm that greenlights problematic or otherwise controversial iPhone apps submitted to App Store.

The vast majority of submissions get approved by employees who work in Apple’s Worldwide Developer Relations department, which is often called App Review.

CNBC has the story:

The department has more than 300 reviewers and is based out of a pair of offices in Sunnyvale, California — not Apple’s famous Apple Park campus or its older headquarters, Infinite Loop—people familiar with the offices said. Lots of reviewers are fluent in non-English languages and some teams in the division specialize in individual languages. Apple says its reviewers speak 81 different languages.

The job is not as easy as it sounds because reviewers say they sometimes receive feedback from developers “that can be threatening.” As far as controversial apps and updates go, these can be run up the chain to the Executive Review Board (ERB), a group that determines an app’s fate and makes the final call whether an app can stay on the store or if it’s banned

That body has been meeting since 2009, according to Apple’s letter to the FCC.

Last year, the ERB and Schiller made the decision to ban the Infowars app from App Store for violating content policies after publishing threats to a reporter, a person familiar with the matter said. Inside App Review, Apple employees manually screen every single iPhone app before they become available to download on Apple’s platforms.

Shouldn’t all that manual labor be entrusted to the almighty algorithm?

Any app or update that runs on iPhone needs a stamp of approval from a human being in order to be distributed on App Store. While Apple does use automated filters, people familiar with the department say it’s always relied on manual labor.

No surprise here, Apple’s always been a highly curated platform.

The CNBC report goes on to claim that Phil Schiller is involved in decision-making through the ERB although he rarely visits the office where the review takes place. Day-to-day oversight of the app review operations is within the domain of the company’s Vice President Ron Okamoto and an unnamed director who joined Apple when it bought TestFlight in 2015.

Here’s how the actual review process goes down.

Reviewers ‘claim’ a batch of apps through a web portal on a Mac desktop, called App Claim, then they often examine the app on an attached iPad, even if it’s an iPhone app, although there are stations for reviewers to evaluate Apple Watch and Apple TV apps on those devices, people familiar with the process said. Some developers have said they were surprised to see iPad screenshots of their iPhone apps in their logged communication with App Review.

Reviewers compare the app to Apple’s App Store guidelines, including making sure it runs without crashing and isn’t full of illegal content. Then the reviewers make a call whether to accept, reject or hold the app. Most reviewers only spend a few minutes per app, but many apps are simple and only require a short period to evaluate, sources said.

Reviewers have daily app quotas between 50 and 100 apps and the number of apps any individual reviewer gets through in an hour is tracked by software called Watchtower, according to screenshots seen by CNBC. Reviewers are also judged on whether their decisions are later overturned and other quality-oriented stats.

People who worked at App Review said that work days could be long and that there were periods, such as ahead of Apple’s annual release of its new version of iOS, when app developers update their apps so they’re compatible.

One stat that is closely tracked at App Review is called SLA, which stands for service-level agreement. Apple aims for 50% of apps to be reviewed within 24 to 48 hours. When there’s a big queue of apps, the SLA percentage drops, according to reviewers who worked at Apple.

On July 30 last year, the SLA fell to six percent, according to a staff email. ‘Until we catch up, we are opening up 12-hour days,’ according to the email seen by CNBC. ‘Please note that you should not work over 12 hours in one day.’

With thousands of new apps submitted for review on a daily basis, small wonder that Apple recently opened new App Review offices in Cork, Ireland, and Shanghai, China, according to CNBC. The department has added significant headcount in recent years, the report added.

All of app reviewers work for Apple, they’re not contractors.

They’re paid hourly, have employee badges and get Apple benefits such as health care. Everyone starts out reviewing iPhone apps. As reviewers become more senior, they’re trained to evaluate apps with in-app purchases, subscriptions, as well as apps built for Apple Watch and Apple TV.

Apple is probably the only Silicon Valley firm whose executives can be bothered to help curate digital content they sell. From the App Store’s inception in the summer of 2008, the Cupertino tech giant has insisted that it would approve even single app submitted to the store to ensure users can trust that apps downloaded from App Store are safe to run and aren’t scammy.

However, rogue developers always attempt to work around Apple’s restrictions.

Another reviewer said that sometimes they approve what looks like a valid app, but changes can be made on the developer’s server to make it into a scammy app that violates Apple’s guidelines. Sometimes reviewers get dinged for that, the person said.

There’s also an appeal process through a body called the App Review Board, which can change the decision from a lower-level reviewer. According to CNBC, sustained appeals can bring an app in front of the Executive Review Board.

Around forty percent of apps or updates submitted to Apple are rejected.

“We created App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers,” the iPhone maker wrote last month on a new webpage designed to demonstrate an increased level of transparency over previous years.

As you know, App Store has been under fire lately, with class action lawsuits filed in the US, a probe in the EU and complaints by Spotify accusing Apple of alleged monopoly.

The whole story is fascinating so be sure to read it in its entirety at CNBC.