Not So Fast: No, Apple Isn't Censoring Your Dirty Emails

Is Apple deleting emails containing vulgar and porn-related phrases? That's the charge leveled at Cupertino in a Robert X. Cringely post on InfoWorld (and several reblogs), claiming that an email containing an attachment with the phrase "barely legal teens" was being deleted by Apple's iCloud email service.

But while it's tempting to paint Apple as the prudish overlord it sometimes plays on the Web, iCloud is not bulk-censoring filthy emails. 

The original post related the tale of an email bearing a Hollywood script as a PDF attachment. This email reportedly never arrived in the recipient's iCloud inbox despite multiple resends. Several retries and edits later, Cringely's correspondant determined that the phrase "barely legal teens" (which was used in a non-sexual context) had caused the problem. 

A Spam Filter Bug, Maybe. But Censorship? Not Quite

There's little reason to doubt that this story is true. In all likelihood, iCloud is scanning email attachments for certain keywords and phrases to determine if they're spam. It's entirely possible that the filter was a little too broad and wound up zapping a perfectly legitimate message. In fact, Apple may have seen the press coverage and immediately fixed the problem, kind of like that time they quietly pulled the bizarre dental surgery iPad app from iTunes after we wrote about it. 

But charges that "Apple now deletes all iCloud emails that contain the phrase ‘barely legal teens,'" as Cult of Mac has claimed, are false. Apple is not deleting every email containing the phrase "barely legal teens." It might have deleted one email with an attachment that contained that phrase, but the alarmist lead on that story is way over the top. 

Trust me. I emailed myself some pretty horrendous things to test this out. Using multiple external, non-Apple email accounts, I tried sending the most disgusting, vulgar phrases I could think of to my iCloud email address. All of them made it through. Even emails containing things that go beyond "barely legal" to "definitely completely illegal" and "will probably land me on some government watch list" made it through to my iCloud inbox.

Trust me when I say that the things I've been emailing myself for the last hour would cause major problems had I mistyped the recipient's email address. I'm still half expecting to hear a knock at my front door. 

News That Fits Into A Larger Narrative

The claim that Apple is auto-zapping offensive emails fits nicely into the larger narrative about Apple services being run by anti-porn, censorship-happy control freaks – which, of course, they pretty much are. Not only can a little nudity get a very popular app like 500px booted from iTunes, but perfectly non-offensive, journalistically valuable apps like Josh Begley's Drone+ iPhone app aren't allowed into the App Store because of their content. It's one of Apple's worst tendencies, but in this case, the narrative just doesn't hold true. 

It's not unlike the time the fake story about Apple designing an asymmetric screw to keep hardware tinkerers at bay exploded all over the Internet. Like this story, that one fit into a larger narrative that had roots deep in Apple's history. But again, not true. 

As frustrating as Apple's app censorship can get, its very existence at least makes sense. By keeping the App Store free of nudity, vulgarity and overtly sexual content, Apple ensures a squeaky clean user experience that's well-suited to the next generation of iGadget addicts. But deleting private emails? The company would have just about zero business motivation to monitor your inbox for filthy words and delete your private messages. 

Instead, what probably happened is that the service's anti-spam filters were a little too broad and wound up blocking a term that, quite explicitly, refers to something that is perfectly legal. In at least this one case, the wrong email got caught in the filter. If it's true, the claim that the message was deleted and not merely flagged is unfortunate. But there's little reason to believe that what happened is either common or part of Apple's prudish philosophy. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a bunch of truly raunchy emails to delete.   



UPDATE: Apple has acknowledged that the some phrases are indeed being blocked by its outgoing spam filter and encourages customers to follow up with AppleCare if legitimate messages are getting blocked.  That's not good enough. It makes sense for Apple to try and minimize the volume of spam emails coming from iCloud addresses, but if they're going to blacklist certain terms, it needs to be made clear to users. 

I stand by my original position that this isn't the prudish censorship for which the company is sometimes known. If Apple cared what filthy words we were emailing back and forth, I wouldn't have been able to read some of the messages I sent to my iCloud address during my tests. This is an anti-spam mechanism that's been set a little too broadly. Apple has a right to prevent outgoing spam, but customers also deserve to know when emails aren't getting sent. Here's hoping Apple fixes this soon. 

Photo by David Bueso