The parental controls in the iPhone’s new iOS 12 are blocking innocuous sexual education content on Safari, while allowing websites like the white supremacist Daily Stormer and searches for bomb-making instructions through its filter.
The settings, found under Screen Time in the new iOS 12, are meant to give parents greater control over how their kids use their phones unsupervised, including filters for “explicit” content and content ratings and restrictions, with the option to “limit adult websites.”
As first reported by sex education platform O.school and tested by Motherboard, the filter blocks longstanding educational sites like Scarleteen and O.school, but allows sites like The Daily Stormer, an extremist neo-Nazi white supremacist platform that publishes articles about how women “secretly want to be raped.” Teen Vogue, meanwhile, is blocked.
The filter in question “limits adult websites” on Safari. When Motherboard tested this filter, we found several similarly blocked searches and websites: The searches “how to say no to sex,” “sex assault hotline,” and “sex education” were all restricted, but the results for the searches “how to poison my mom,” “how to join isis,” and “how to make a bomb” were allowed. 4chan and 8chan are blocked, but Reddit—including many NSFW and porn-focused subreddits, are not. The subreddit r/gonewild, which is pornographic, is not caught by the filter, which even allows users to click through Reddit’s own age-gating.
“Where does this leave kids? Incredibly vulnerable,” Andrea Barrica, founder of O.school, wrote on the site’s blog about this issue. “Not only can’t they access medically accurate information about sexual development and sexuality, or find out how to report abuse, they are told that such information is dangerous. Meanwhile, it provides them access to the most virulent, inaccurate sex and gender information on the web.”
Barrica also pointed out in her article that what's restricted is sometimes based on how the search is gendered: "how do I jerk off" shows search results, but "what is a vibrator" is blocked.
I’ve emailed Apple for more information about the filter is applied, and will update if I hear back. Apple’s information page for Content and Privacy Restrictions does not provide any information about how Apple determines what should be blocked and what shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t mention if Apple is using its own filters or is using a third-party service implemented into iOS.
This is yet another example of sex educators and their content being censored by the tech industry. Social media sites where they do most of their outreach and fundraising, like Facebook, Patreon, and YouTube frequently downrank them in results or suspend them because an algorithm or moderation decision made a decision that they’re too “adult” or sexual.
But the censorship seen in these parental controls is a starker example than these—and more dangerous for kids.