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What Content Might Apple Be Censoring Out of iCloud Emails?


When you hear the phrase "barely legal teen," what comes to mind? Yep, Apple seems to think the same thing too and seems to have not been delivering emails that contain it.

Macworld's Mark Hattersley, who sent test emails from personal iCloud account, found Apple won't deliver them if they contain the offending phrase.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces iCloud during a keynote address to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Monday, June 6, 2011. (Photo: AP/Paul Sakuma)

Macworld's message read: "My friend's son is already allowed to drive his high-powered car. It's ridiculous. He's a barely legal teenage driver? What on earth is John thinking."

In a second email he changed "a barely legal" to "barely a legal" and found separating "barely" and "legal" was key to allowing the message to go through. Macworld also found that the phrase is not blocked by Siri or in iMessages.

On the other hand, Read Write Web's John Paul Titlow also said he sent himself "some pretty horrendous things to test this out" but all of them went through.

(Image: Wikimedia)

The difference here could have been that Titlow sent the emails from "multiple external, non-Apple email accounts" to an account using iCloud, while Macworld's Hattersley sent the offending phrase from an iCloud account.

The blocking mechanism was actually first reported by Macworld sister site Infoworld in November 2012 but has only recently been gaining traction. Infoworld was alerted to the issue by a reader named Steven G., who developed screenplay-writing software used by filmmakers. Steven G. was having trouble getting his emails to go through and found out that a PDF of a screenplay with the "barely legal teen" phrase was to blame.

Steven G. created a PDF with a similar sentence to screenplay's offending line that read: "All my children are barely legal teens -- why would I want to let them drive by themselves?" This was blocked.

Infoworld went on to point out the following from iCloud's Terms and Conditions that appears to be involved in blocking the phrase [emphasis added]:

You acknowledge that Apple is not responsible or liable in any way for any Content provided by others and has no duty to pre-screen such Content. However, Apple reserves the right at all times to determine whether Content is appropriate and in compliance with this Agreement, and may pre-screen, move, refuse, modify and/or remove Content at any time, without prior notice and in its sole discretion, if such Content is found to be in violation of this Agreement or is otherwise objectionable.

That said there are many cases where "barely legal teen" would have absolutely nothing to with pornographic situations and if it did, should it really be blocked?

"Barely legal is, as many people note, not the same as 'illegal' so Apple has no legal requirement to enforce this rule, and appears to be doing it of its own volition," Macworld stated.

Apple confirmed to Ars Technica that "occasionally, automated spam filters may incorrectly block legitimate email. If the customer feels that a legitimate message is blocked, we encourage customers to report it to AppleCare.”

Many are calling these actions "censoring," but Titlow with Read Write Web wrote it is more simply "an anti-spam mechanism that's been set a little too broadly"

Macworld, in a separate post, reported that after its initial article Apple's iCloud seemed to experience problems for some users for nearly 12 hours.

"Users experienced a problem with multiple iCloud services," its support page read.

Was Macworld's calling attention to its blocking mechanism to blame? "Was everyone testing Apple's spam filter?" Macworld wondered.

Apple's history with blocking pornographic content didn't begin here. In 2011, for example, Apple was fighting against URLs using "iPhone" in their name that linked to adult websites. Macworld also noted that Apple doesn't allow pornographic apps or books to be sold int its App Store or iBookstore.

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