Blog Post

Apple Censorship: Coming Soon to Your Text Messages?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

A new patent the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office just approved was filed in 2008 by Apple (s aapl) and prevents users from sending and receiving “objectionable” text messages. The patent (via Gizmodo), officially called “Text-based communication control for personal communication device,” essentially prevents what’s known as “sexting.”

Steve Jobs is known for his stance regarding sexual content in the App Store. Essentially, he wants to keep it clean, so that most content is family-friendly. There are notable exceptions, like the official Playboy app, but generally speaking, nudity and sexuality are a no-no for iOS apps. If that’s not enough, worried parents can lock their kids devices down, restricting access to certain types of content, or to the App Store or Safari altogether.

Apple’s ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable in the App Store have led to some controversial decisions regarding which apps get banned or disallowed in the past. For some, it seems inappropriate that a company can decide what you should and shouldn’t do with your device once you own it.

The new patent takes that a step further. If this tech ever makes it way to your smartphone, it could theoretically alert a user, admin, or other designated individual whenever objectionable content appears in a text message. In practice, that could mean a parent gets a text when their teenage son writes something racy, or that your boss gets a notice whenever you swear in an outbound communication.

According to the patent, the iPhone could also offer suggestions with which to replace the offending text, or just delete it outright as soon as you’re done typing so that it never gets sent in the first place. In effect, that means it could actually change what you’re going to say.

Now I’m not against parents protecting their kids from potentially dangerous situations. That makes sense. But putting this degree of control over something as basic as what you can say with a direct communication device frightens me. Sure, this would probably end up residing in the Restrictions section of the iOS Setting menu, but even just the fact that it would be there would invite things like use by employers to monitor employee texting even more closely than I’m sure many already do, something I definitely don’t approve of.

What do you think? Is this a feature you’d welcome, or an example of Apple going too far?

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

34 Responses to “Apple Censorship: Coming Soon to Your Text Messages?”

  1. There is somthing in that article I don’t really get. You are writing that Steve Jobs has a strong position against sexual content in his App Store. Have you ever checked the app store from you iPhone for books? At least in Germany it is full of “erotic books” such as slave of lust or Wellsex. I have posted it already months ago on Facebook…

  2. To quote one poster, anyone who doesn’t want, an “employer controlling employees’ texts” will have to change our laws. Employers who don’t control that sort of speech can be sued for large sums for creating what our courts consider a work environment filled with speech termed “harassment.” Something you can be sued for is something you have a right to control. Those whose beef is with this, should turn their anger on tort lawyers and not Steve Jobs or Apple.

    I might add that half-a-century ago, this sort of behavior wasn’t dealt with by lawyers and technology. It was dealt with by social norms about civility, norms that have virtually disappeared. There were certain things you never said without being condemned. Now some movies use the “F-word” hundreds of times.

    Civility was also accompanied by a parallel attitude that expected anyone who was mature to know how to brush off this sort of behavior. (Think of attractive women getting ‘wolf whistles.’) That’s the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” of school playgrounds. Foul language and harassment were thus doubly condemned. The speaker was condemned for his words and his target, if he complained, for not being strong enough to brush those words off.

    All that has changed. We’ve become a nation of both foul-mouth harassers (watch TV any evening) and of wimpy, perpetual victims. It’s sad.

    In President Obama you have both. He’s can be nasty, as in his recent attacks on the Chamber of Commerce demonstrate. Even the NY Times called him on that. And he can also be thin-skinned when criticism comes his way. It’s not a pretty sight and it doesn’t speak well of our future as a nation that we elect such people.

  3. I hope this stays in the restrictions. Or something you can sure turn on or off. I do NOT want to be restricted on what i say. Im a 26 yr old, if i want to swear with my friends or suggest something “racy” to my gf i will do so!!!

    I agree with the lock down on childrens phones. But if this effects my private phone and what i write in my private time i will be disgusted.

  4. The hyperbole in this article is really quite amazing. If this makes it in it will end up in the same set of controls which block certain content, apps, sites,etc. There is nothing at all wrong with parents doing their due diligence when it comes to monitoring and directing their children’s behavior. After all it’s part of the job. Will the find a way around it? I’m sure as they always do.

    Now for the idea that this is “Apple playing big brother in our lives” B.S.. All I can say is grow a brain and think about that nonsense for a moment. Apple DOES and WILL control content on the store they run, it’s their sand box they make the rules. Don’t like it? Don’t play in it, simple as that. So far as the further B.S. that employers some how have no right to control the devices they deploy. That’s the kind of crap thinking is what keeps help desk and networking people occupied cleaning up viruses and restoring systems that have been rendered un usable because some moron decided they didn’t like their employer controlling the equipment the employer purchased and provided to said moronic employee.

    Little more actual journalism and little less fear mongering and crap thinking please.

  5. As long as this has an on/off switch (it almost certainly will), I don’t see any problem with it. Most every other form of electronic media has options to block certain content. It’s an option that many parents and employers use regularly.

    On a side note, as an iPhone App developer, I have never had any problem with Apple App Store Rules. I have published several apps and never had one rejection. I just follow the Apple guidelines when designing my app instead of crossing my fingers, getting rejected and complain on forums.

    Bottom line: Apple can do what they want with their products if the market does not approve, the product will not sell and Apple will adjust.

  6. I think this could work, but only if the following conditions are met:

    1. The patent is solely used as a parental control which follows what I just stated above for now and forever.

    2. In all cases, if monitoring is to be a part of the patent, then the end user should always be informed before sending a text that the specific text in question will result in an alert if the end user chooses to send it. In addition, I want this notification to inform the end user of who exactly the alert will be sent to and why the alert is being sent by identifying the word(s) in question.

    3. No automatic deleting of data before the text is sent because that is a direct restriction of speech. Only suggestions for replacements.

    4. The parents need to be in charge of both the whitelist and blacklist fully. I am ok with some preset blacklist categories being included as options to choose from, but in all cases the parents need to be in control rather than any company limited the choices that the parents can make. In other words, parents should not only be provided with an on/off switch for categories such as “curse” words. They also need to be able to whitelist and blacklist specific curse words too even after the category is selected.

    5. When it comes to receiving text messages on phones with these parental controls enabled, #2 in my list needs to also be applied. In other words, when the end user tries to open a received text which contains words on the blacklist then a warning needs to pop up providing the same information as I suggested in #2.

    6. An option for parents to choose whether or not a received text message can be viewed by the end user if it contains words on the blacklist is permitted to exist, but that option should not stop the end user from being alerted to the fact that a text was received, who it was sent from, what time it was sent, and why it was blocked (ie blocked due to pornographic/violent/etc language).

  7. I personally believe that smartphones should be used by generally people a little more mature / independent of this (I know my parents would’ve never paid my $100 iphone bill when I was 16) but this seems like it would be pretty ineffective and also annoying, like when a brand new iPhone keeps trying to autocorrect “fucking” to “ducking”. It’s not going to discourage sexting, as kids are notorious for finding ways around things.

  8. Parents, if your kids are sexting, chances are they’re having sex. The odds are Your kids also know more about this technology than you do. If your really this worried and you think it’s a problem your stupid kids shouldn’t have cell-phones, or get them a pre-paid flip. Censorship is poor parenting. If your hiding things from your kids they’ll find out in other places. Stop letting your poor parenting get in the way of the fact that I want to look at porn and sext with multiple partners.

  9. Poor journalism mixed with fear mongering here. Quality of posts has taken a hit recently on gigaom…

    Obviously Apple does not have plans to censor texts. What they are doing (potentially in the future) is adding a feature to their phone that will convince people to buy it. They realize that a large portion of iphones are bought by parents for their children. When mom and dad are comparing the $99 Android to a the $199 iphone they will see this feature and hopefully (for Apple) spring for the iphone. This has nothing to do with “Steve Jobs’ stance on sexual content”. But a strategy to bring desired optional features to a product that will help drive sales. Brilliant move by apple. If the thought of this scares you, ask your IT department for a camera flip phone instead… *rollseyes*

  10. Adam Jackson

    If this is purely applied to parental controls as part of iPhones that parents buy for kids, then I’m fine with it.

    I think this opens up the market further to paranoid parachute parents who want their kids to be connected or cool without the ability to send things to friends that are questionable.

    Yeah, I know it only prevents this kind of activity via SMS but parents may not realize that it doesn’t apply to web or Facebook or the Twitter app. Kids will be kids but it’s the parents who are spending the money.

  11. Hal Summers

    I’ll be the New York Jets wish they’d had some type of restriction like this on Brett Favre.

    Personally, I think it’s fine if this is implemented as a parental control. Anything that helps parents in having their kids think twice before doing something stupid that can have lasting effects is OK by me.

    I have two boys, ages 12 and 14, and I know they don’t think 1/2 the time before acting. The main thing this would do is to get them to think first. If they figure out a workaround then there is no excuse. My kids know they will lose their device if they cross certain lines. It keeps them in check.

  12. I think this is a brilliant feature that helps parents keep their kids safe. This is nothing more than parental controls for text messages and will be able to be configured by the individual. Anyone who doesn’t see the benefit must not have a teen or “tween”. I realize that they will find ways around it, but it will slow down the younger kids who are the least able to handle the associated risks of “sexting”.

  13. I find the title of this article disturbing. Apple is not censoring anything. They are merely providing a means for other parties to do so.

    If the company I work for issues me a cell phone, I believe they have every right to monitor how I use that cell phone to represent the company. I have every right to choose not to work for that company if I don’t like it. What I do on my personal mobile device is completely up to me.

    And I believe that parents should actively participate in the lives of their children, teaching them to be respectful and responsible members for society. I believe they have every right to block explicit content on the mobile devices they provide for their children. When the kids are old enough to pay for their own mobile devices, hopefully they have had enough influence from their parents and other adults in their lives by then to make their own responsible choices.

    • Thanks. You saved me from commenting. Not that the paranoid will relent. Including the author of this post opportunistically feeding the flames.

      I would rather have learned more about the technology.

  14. This would be the type of thing that would actually make me leave my iPhone behind and move to a Blackberry or Android. I’m a grown adult, I do not want anything interfering with the message I send, and I’m sorry but if you’re worry about what your child sends they shouldn’t have a phone in the first place.

  15. I’m still puzzled at people being upset on restrictions placed on company owned property that is on loan to facilitate ones job function. All to often the spin put on articles such as this one make it sound that evil Apple empire is acting as big brother.

    The iPhone et. al. are certainly not one of a kind products. If app store restrictions makes one uncomfortable, a number of similar and arguably as-good or better devices available on the market.

  16. The ludicrous claims of this article will result in my removing this site from my reading list. I have plenty to read already, and I don’t need such hyperbolic claims as your boss is going to monitor your phone.

    This is a parental controls feature and nothing more. But that doesn’t make for as interesting story as some wild-ass hair on fire pull it out of your nether parts overblown tripe.

    I’m done with this site.

  17. I suppose it’s some kind of parental control thing. If your boss decides to play big brother (or parent) and do this to you, Apple can’t do anything about it. It’s probably a nice feature for parents to have. It’s not Apple’s control and censorship, it’s mom’s control and censorship.

  18. I think this is brilliant. I would love to know my kids are able to send and receive safe text messages. There will be a day when spam is not only sent to email accounts but to phones, via SMS. It would not be cool, if my son gets a Viagra SMS when he is only 14 years old! SMS is just another email address, it’s not out of their reach. Parental control is a big deal, and Apple has been a leader in that implementation for smartphones.

    • You’re clearly out of touch with what it’s like to be a kid. They’ll always find a way to work around this sort of thing, whether it means inventing new slang terms or finding alternate means of communication. You can’t stop it, and any attempts to do so will always be detected by them – the response? Less communication, less trust. Good luck Apple.

      • Matt King

        No control measure is 100%, everyone knows people will find ways around it. That fact is not a good argument against it. Let me ask, when you park your car do you lock the doors? Or do you say car thieves will find a way around the locked door so I’ll leave the windows down and keys in the ignition.

        The two of my kids who have cell phones also have restrictions on those cell phones. No trust or communication has been lost because I openly explain the rules to them from the beginning and do not deviate from them. When kids a taught the difference between friends and parents, a parent loses nothing by being one.

    • You’re also missing that there is spam texts already. They’re called premium text messages, usually cost about $2 per text (carrier dependent). They range from sexting services, to all those annoying you can win an INSERT ITEM HERE ads. You enter your number answer an easy question and until you text stop you receive these premium texts everyday. Same thing as spam, but it actually costs you.

      As cptgibbs put, they will always find a way around things. You can’t be naive enough to think the locks you put in place, or rules have really stopped your kids from doing things.

  19. I agree with the author. Parents should be able to control how their children use their device but it seems a bit overboard with the employer controlling employees’ texts.