Apple believes it has a "moral responsibility" to patrol content on the iPhone. That apparently includes heavily watering down a guide to New York's gay culture, as one author just learned.

Apple has just rejected, for the second time, the app "Gay New York: 101 Can't-Miss Places," created in conjunction with San Francisco-based Sutro Media. The company objected to images that show too much skin, and to a caricature of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The problem here is that it's awfully hard to assemble an authentic guide to "Gay New York" when Apple objects to content as innocuous as a well-muscled guy in a thong or an unflattering drawing of a politician. Here's how the author, Forbes and New York Times-contributing freelance travel writer Anthony Grant, put it:

I tried throughout to make things very PG-13; for example, for The Cock, which as you may know is a legendary East Village dive bar, I stuck in a picture of a nice-looking black cock... i.e., a rooster. Sort of as a joke, sort of in pre-deference to what I was sure would be an objection to anything overtly phallic.

The asked me to pull a picture of another place, The Web, that featured a stylized ass. I did. But how would I properly illustrate Ass Wednesdays at the Urge...with Etch-a-Sketch? This is all part of gay culture...which happens to bring tons of money into this city.

Here's Apple's letter (click to enlarge):

The screenshots Apple mentioned:

The top image was originally intended to illustrate a bar. Grant writes, "that's the one I find the least problematic in terms of their objections — although, by no stretch could one say that man's penis is visible.... I might say [it] is a little trashy, but trashy is what a lot of New York bars are and it's just part of the scene."

The second: "Well, she is obscene, so maybe Apple has a point there...falls under the category of Chelsea street art/freedom of expression. "

The last: "A reproduction of an old painting downstairs at Buddakan. To put it where it's at, I think a little tasteful Renaissance cock lends an extra measure of gay interest to a glam restaurant that's on Chelsea's southern rim. And I snapped it with my iPhone."

Grant finds Apple's rejection of his app "homophobic and discriminatory to the point of hostile," at least in part because "far racier photographic material is routinely available on other apps." Apple faced similar charges of discrimination when it cracked down on mildly racy pictures from smaller app publishers while clearing Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition app, and one from Playboy. It's also faced charges of political bias, bias against would-be competitors and just being generally unpredictable and insane.

Apple has opened itself to these charges. First the company insisted on filtering, selling and taking a commission from the sale of all iPhone and iPad apps. Then it began couching its role in moral terms; Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently told a customer, "we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone."At a press conference, Jobs went on to imply that mobile porn consumers are bad parents and obsessive degenerates: ""You know, there's a porn store for Android. You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn."

When the iPhone first came out, Apple allowed people to believe the company was filtering apps to appease the wireless phone companies it had partnered with. But as time has passed it's become clear that Jobs, a notorious control freak, relishes the chance to tighten his grip. That's why there's an Apple-controlled app store for devices that never touch a wireless phone company network, like the iPod Touch and wi-fi-only iPad. And it probably has something to do with why Apple is poised to change its operating system for conventional computers to better resemble the iPhone's OS.

It's possible to have a reasonable argument over whether Apple is neutering "Gay New York" because it's homophobic, because it is really bad at running an app store, or because it is simply exercising its God-given right to try and create the world's blandest digital marketplace. But whichever side you come down on, it's awfully hard to escape the conclusion that Apple is increasingly functioning not just as an arbiter of technology but of culture itself. And that is frightening.