Posted on June 21, 2022 in Technology

“Apple’s Walled Garden” And the PG-13-ification of The Internet


Tumblr is the most famous app to struggle with Apple’s obtuse clearance system. Since Tumblr seems to be making a bit of a comeback, it’s a good place to start the story. In 2018, the beginning stages of the NSFW content ban were beginning to wreak havoc on the site – Apple wasn’t going to allow specifically nudity-based NSFW media on any apps in the app store small enough for them to jerk around, and Tumblr had shrunk.

 NSFW content would be officially banned on December 17th, 2018, and any blog with any NSFW content would be put in the shadow realm, where they’d be impossible to search, and the posts that put them there would be removed.

 I can go on and on about how badly this screwed up Tumblr – there are a lot of artists who were making art that complied with Tumblr’s statement on what was allowed only to end up with their posts in review anyway because the auto-filter Tumblr used didn’t know the difference, there were people who reblogged something from a shirtless artist two years back, didn’t realize it was still there because of how much stuff they’d reblogged since then, and then ended up shadow-realmed with seemingly no way to figure out what got them in trouble, there were people who’d built entire careers out of shirtless art who got chased off to Twitter and took their followers with them, and there were people who were, quite frankly, only there for the shirtless art in the first place.

The ban was a huge mess and forced a lot of users off the site, including people who met all the requirements to stay but lost all of the blogs they followed to the ban. What do you do but leave when all of the people you were there for, are gone?

And it gets worse: some art was supposed to be allowed, but it de facto wasn’t. Museums were getting swept up! There are a lot of anthropologically important statues, paintings, and other representations of men and women, and not all of them are exactly dressed for church. Nobody is arguing that the Statue of David is not art, but there’s an argument (a bad faith one) that the statue is Not Suitable for Work. Automated filters can’t tell the difference between marble, paint, and flesh, anyway, so on Tumblr, pics of the statue were shadow-realmed unless they were censored. Appealing the post meant the post would be in limbo for days, if not weeks, and you may have to re-appeal it if the moderator who saw it didn’t recognize it as art at first. Combined with an overworked team of staff behind the scenes and general site-wide chaos, fixing the museum issue on top of fixing the spam bots and fixing the website and fixing the mistakenly-banned accounts and fixing the filter itself and fixing the – etc. felt like it was years away. So art where the subject happened to be nude was no longer present on the site, full stop.

Steve Jobs Hates Nudes

Which is just what Apple wanted. Steve Jobs was notoriously prudish. Steve Jobs did not like NSFW content. He did not want it anywhere near his beautiful, sleek app store. From TechCrunch: ‘When questioned about Apple’s role as moral police in the App Store, Jobs responds that “we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” Better, is what he said next: “Folks who want porn can buy and [sic] Android phone.”.’ Well, fine, but – again – ordinary, culturally important art got swept up in that too, and he didn’t seem to mind. A number of apps just aren’t allowed on the store because they’re icky, not because something is actually wrong with them beyond that ickiness. You can extrapolate from his entire personality, his fear of buttons, his minimalist philosophy in design – he had a real problem with existing as a human and wanted to be something cleaner.

That philosophy has infected every app that wants to be on the Apple app store, because if they don’t tow the line, they get kicked. In a world where Apple is a billion-dollar company and a huge number of consumers have an iPhone, avoiding the Apple app store is shooting your app in the foot before it even gets off the ground. However, making an Apple-specific window into your app can actually help you out quite a bit. To go back to Tumblr, the app was wrecked. When the app was up for renewal, and thus had to go through the opaque approval process again, the person reviewing the app had spotted NSFW content under otherwise innocuous tags. So it was going to be wrecked again. To be clear, that’s mostly the spam-bots fault: spam-bots looking to get people to click their ads and links would tag their posts with every popular tag they could, resulting in innocent tags like #girl, #selfie, #boy, and more being attached to gifs of banned content.

However, this time was different. Tumblr only banned the tags for Apple because the Google app store had no such requirement upon renewal. Apple Tumblr users were understandably a little weirded out that their innocent K-Drama tags were no longer allowed, but at this point they were in it for the long haul, and communities built new tags instead of wondering too hard about the old ones. Apple’s app renewal process is difficult to navigate on purpose because Apple holds all the power!  They can declare arbitrarily that because its inspector found art under a tag in the app’s tagging system (that rightfully should have been caught by the filter, but wasn’t, because the filter sucks) Tumblr will either no longer have those tags or Tumblr just won’t be renewed, full stop. Every app is subject to this. If NSFW art can be found by an Apple app inspector, the app has to deal with it right then and there. Tumblr’s two-prong method was an interesting solution to the issue, but the result is an inequal app experience. For small developers, this may not be an option.

The Web Was A Wasteland

There was a time where the web was for adults, whether it be news, forums, math, or games, and if kids saw something gorey or scary when they weren’t supposed to, that was their parents’ fault for letting them be on there. This changed when kids were encouraged to use the internet for research, and websites acknowledged that it was possible to click an innocent-looking link on Google and end up somewhere horrid. Websites introduced the “I verify that I’m over 18” button, Google introduced Safe Search, and kids were introduced to the idea of ‘safe browsing’ in general, which curbed a lot of the issues parents had with the way the web was. Most normal people were happier with the web when they couldn’t accidentally stumble onto something gross, as well.

But then things changed. Kids were expected to have smartphones or other devices. Social media sites took root and became cool. Youtube, Twitter and Reddit set a lower age limit of 13, which tacitly said that children at age 13 or older would be accepted (at least, that’s the argument they’d use when people called them out for being kids arguing with adults). Before, minors would have to at least behave like an adult or get ridiculed online. Adults who were able to assume they were talking to other adults on forums could no longer assume that was the case. You started seeing things like ‘Minors DNI’ (DNI stands for Do Not Interact) on Tumblr profiles because a blog owner would discover, three hours into a basic philosophy argument, that the other person they’d been arguing with was actually 14. Obviously, teens aren’t stupid, but they’re also not just underaged adults!

A couple of legal cases where children were exposed to things they shouldn’t have been then led to a change in online responsibility. Anybody making that shirtless art from before could get in trouble if they learned kids were following them but didn’t do anything to prevent them from seeing said art (you can block people on most sites to prevent them from seeing your stuff, for instance) so they’d warn kids to stay away and avoid the trouble altogether. Reddit demands you make an account to verify age if you want to see NSFW subreddits, and Twitter allows adult artists to flag individual posts as NSFW, which was good for both adults who liked the artist but didn’t want to accidentally see something inappropriate for the subway while they scrolled through their feed, and kids who didn’t want or need to see it in the first place if their artist of choice retweeted the original artist.

 The reverse applied with ‘Minor – Adults DNI’,  where kids were looking for other kids to talk to online and didn’t want to accidentally talk to a predator. This wouldn’t stop an ill-intentioned adult, but it kept well-meaning adults from accidentally stumbling into a Chris Hansen situation due to a misunderstanding. Would it be better if kids weren’t allowed on the sites at all? Enforcement is the issue, not shoulds and woulds. It is extraordinarily difficult to prevent kids from pretending to be 18. Anything that actually worked would violate privacy and thus limit its own userbase.

As such, a lot of smaller sites PG-13ified themselves to avoid getting in trouble for accidentally distributing NSFW content to kids, whether it be gore or nudity, and the big social media apps began toning it down as much as they could without turning into Tumblr. Museums and other such places that had depictions of human bodies were further cornered by auto-filters.

Sometimes Art Is Not Accessible to Children… and Sometimes It’s Not Meant to Be

Some art is not meant for children. Some art is aimed at adults who have struggled in ways that adults do, and to water that art down so kids understand it would be destroying the art in the process. Its why people are angry that Disney is buying up so many properties – it means you don’t get to see superheroes rising above situations if those situations aren’t easily explained to a kid.

Imagine trying to make something like Moby Dick child-friendly in content, or A Tale of Two Cities: you’d end up with a Marvel story. Worse, think of the recent controversies over stories like ‘Maus’ – because a 13-year-old isn’t allowed to read it, now the 14-17-year-olds still in high school can’t find it in that Pennsylvanian library. For context, I read it sophomore year in high school, and it didn’t spark rebellion in me, as the argument that got it removed said it would. That argument and the inappropriateness argument is a smokescreen to remove a book that made them uncomfortable.

Allowing a small minority of parents to dictate what an entire population of schoolchildren shouldn’t read because it’s ‘inappropriate for kids’ is also a significant problem, one tied into the general censorship of the web. When parents are allowed to jerk around the people making art because the art is inappropriate for their children, you end up with bland retellings of fairy tales because anything else might offend. You end up with the Hayes Code. You end up with Holocaust deniers who never had to learn about it in high school and thus think it’s a conspiracy. You end up with kids that grow up into adults that can’t think critically about the media they consume or about the stereotypes and biases that may be hidden inside, because art for kids has to be perfectly clear about who’s right and who’s wrong so as not to confuse them with things like gray areas, which art and content for adults features all the time. Nobody’s perfect, except for in fairy tales.

Apple’s censorship of the web and the resulting child-friendly attitude that followed it has haunted the internet ever since.