iCloud email censorship

Jared Newman of Time magazine published an  article that indicates that iCloud email accounts are being censored by Apple prior to delivery.  The company appears to be looking for inappropriate or “naughty” language and if found, silently deleting the message without any indication to either the sender or receiver that the message has been trashed.

wordsThe magazine MacWorld, has demonstrated the censorship with some fairly extensive testing.   What’s particularly interesting is that the phrase “barely legal teens” was one of the phrases that Apple deemed as inappropriate.  Though of questionable meaning, certainly not a curse, swear or all that controversial without some context.  Also, they found that attached documents were also searched even if zipped.

Over the past 10-15 years, email (and the related instant messaging) has become the de facto standard method for communication both personal and business use.  Though email delivery is not guaranteed, the reliability of email has been sufficiently robust enough that users expect delivery or notification that delivery isn’t possible.   There is also an expectation that the email text is delivered exactly as written.

Enterprises typically censor messages, looking for inappropriate language.  In my previous job, if a message was censored, I was notified, which told me that (a) I should have received a message and (b) told how to avoid getting it quashed.  I have less of a problem with this for enterprise messaging since companies have a legal obligation to keep inappropriate discourse out of the workplace.

However, for personal messaging, I have significant concerns about this and hopefully Apple will address and rectify this problem.  Also, I hope that Apple is the only company censoring messages.  My concerns fall into the following buckets:

  • Who defines inappropriate?  There are some words and phrases in every language that are considered inappropriate, either because they defile a deity or they are considered to be something not to be used by “polite company”.  However, between two or more conversants, it really doesn’t matter what the cultural norms are as the conversants establish the cultural rules for their private discussion.   More over, context is crucial.  Back to the phrase “barely legal teens”.  This could mean someone just old enough to be able to engage in consensual sex.   However, it could also mean someone who is just old enough to purchase alcohol in say Ireland where the drinking age is 18.  What words and phases is Apple searching for?  We simply don’t know and it seems arbitrary.
  • Silently not delivering email equates to poor quality of service.  This has been an issue regarding spam.  Some anti-spam filters simply delete the email silently, especially in enterprises.  However, most personal email services will deliver what it considers spam into a special folder. This keeps it out of one’s inbox, yet allows the user to look for legitimate email misclassified as spam.   Personally, I find significant numbers of legit emails in my spam folders, proving that filtering is not fool-proof.  There is no reason to believe this filtering is fool-proof either.

The bottom line is that iCloud messaging is not a sufficiently robust solution for email until Apple changes its policy.

Where to host your personal email is an important subject.  See my post Email options for more information.

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