Your iPhone's Adult Content Filter Blocks Anything 'Asian'

Illustration for article titled Your iPhone's Adult Content Filter Blocks Anything 'Asian'
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Enabling Apple’s “Limit Adult Websites” filter in the iOS Screen Time setting will block users from seeing any Google search results for “Asian” in any browser on their iPhone. That’s not great, folks.

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The content-filtering feature is designed for parents to control what their children see when they browse the web. But the terms that are being blocked seem arbitrary at best and, in the case of the “Asian” exclusion, insulting. The search result exclusion was initially reported by the Independent, but Gizmodo was also able to independently confirm that enabling the filter means any search tangentially related to “Asian” (i.e., Asian-American, Asian food, Southeast Asian, Asian restaurants near me, etc) will return a message reading “You cannot browse this page at ‘google.com’ because it is restricted,” or, “The URL was blocked by a content filter.”

Other racial or ethnic search terms such as “Black,” “white,” “Korean,” “Arab” or “French” don’t seem to be impacted by the filter. Also confusingly, some popular pornographic search terms are blocked while others aren’t. For example, the search term “schoolgirl” isn’t blocked but “redhead” is.

The issue was first spotted by Steven Shen, an iOS developer, on Twitter. Shen also told the Independent that he had filed a report to Apple in December 2019 pointing out the issue, but that he never received a response. Gizmodo reached out to Apple for comment but didn’t immediately receive a response.

Right now, it’s not clear how Apple decides which search terms are adult and which ones aren’t. It’s very possible that this is a goof from some AI program that just scrapes search results for popular porn terms. But at the same time, something like this should not be left to AI without some sort of human curation. The alternative—that a group of humans did oversee and approve this list of terms—would be exponentially worse. Regardless of whether this was or wasn’t an intentional decision, the fact this had been reported to Apple more than a year ago and still nothing has changed is massively disappointing.

I get why Apple would want to give parents control over what their children might stumble upon, but this is absolutely not the way to do it. It’s undoubtedly true that there are perverts out there with gross or inappropriate stereotypes. That said, words alone aren’t inherently sexual and there are valid scenarios in which you might search for an “adult” term for reasons that have nothing to do with porn. It makes sense why terms like “teen,” “mature,” and “amateur” might be blocked as adult content. Except you could also just be searching “Teen Titans” or “amateur figure skating,” and those results would also be blocked. Meanwhile, there’s a non-zero chance if you’re googling “Japanese schoolgirl” it’s not for innocent reasons—and yet, that search term or the sexualized images it brings up aren’t blocked.

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As an Asian-American, this stings. Yes, Yellow Fever is rampant on the internet—the incredibly cursed messages I occasionally get on social media are proof enough of that. However, the perversions of some people doesn’t justify this in the slightest. That a neutral term like “Asian,” which on its own is not pornographic, has been labeled an “adult” descriptor is a stark reminder that Asian women are routinely fetishized as docile nymphomaniacs or dragon ladies. That it appears to be the only racial term singled out in Apple’s adult content filter is even more disheartening.

There are plenty of reasons why you would use the word Asian in a Google search. You could be making travel plans, finding places to eat, recipes, geography, or even something as innocent as an Asian Elephant. But personally, the worst thing is if I wanted to connect with the greater Asian-American community, or more realistically, if any child wanted to look up our history, we’d be told it’s restricted content.

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Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

DISCUSSION

Well shit. How am I gonna find out why Japanese schoolgirls started wearing those sailor uniforms?

Joking aside, finding the right balance between automated parenting and hands-on parenting can be difficult. My personal stance is to limit automation when possible and have constant communication with children.

Perhaps Apple and other companies can allow parents to customize their own filters. “Here’s a default list of filtered terms.” And parents can check/uncheck the defaults and also add their own terms to be filtered. Although a downside to that is controlling parents can block harmless or useful information they personally disapprove of. “my kids will never need to know anything about trans or gay shit. *block* Racism? Doesn’t exist, fake news.”