If you type “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” into the Tumblr search on the iOS app nothing comes up, even though there are plenty of posts with those tags floating around Tumblr. The censorship, which went into effect the same day as the site-wide porn ban, looks like Tumblr is filtering out an entire community of posters, many of whom post nothing racy. “Gay” does not equal “porn.” But, it turns out, this might not have everything to do with Tumblr, its new owner Yahoo, or the company’s new stance on explicit content. Rather, Apple and its prudish app store guidelines are the most likely culprit. At least that’s what Tumblr claims, per a blog post by Tumblr CEO David Karp (emphasis ours):
Unfortunately, different app environments have different requirements that we do our best to adhere to. The reason you see innocent tags like #gay being blocked on certain platforms is that they are still frequently returning adult content which our entire app was close to being banned for. The solution is more intelligent filtering which our team is working diligently on. We’ll get there soon. In the meantime, you can browse #lgbtq—which is moderated by our community editors—in all of Tumblr’s mobile apps. You can also see unfiltered search results on tumblr.com using your mobile web browser.
Those “different app environments” that almost banned the Tumblr app because of the porny search results from gay tags is in reference to Apple’s notably uptight app store guidelines. Since Steve Jobs vowed to have a smut free app store, Apple has taken a strict line on porn. Here’s the company’s take on apps with explicit content back in 2010:
18.1 Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings”, will be rejected
18.2 Apps that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic (ex “Chat Roulette” apps) will be rejected
Those Tumblr tags cross that line. And, indeed, this looks Apple specific. When searching on desktop or Android versions of the site, no such filter exists.
Certainly not all of the stuff tagged “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” on Tumblr has anything to do with sex. A quick search of “gay” surfaces a post saying “I’m gonna go pee,” a trailer for a movie about homosexuality in Uganda, and a photo of two fully clothed women on the beach. Sure, that’s amid some nudity and sex, but this is the internet after-all and porn abounds just a few taps away over in the Safari app.
Apple has never adhered to that philosophy, but porn on Tumblr and under those tags is nothing new. The Tumblr app showed up in the iPhone app store back in 2009. Even with the ban, when downloading the app for the first time the disclaimer to the right shows up. So why now? Perhaps it has to do with the site’s sale to Yahoo. The property has a larger audience now and more media cachet. Apple has let bigger names, like Playboy and Sports Illustrated, slide, even though those apps feature nudity and sex. Outright banning Tumblr now would cause a big outrage, so instead Apple’s trying to compromise.
Still, the timing is incredibly curious. The ban went into effect the exact same day as the porn crackdown on the site. For now, Karp is directing the gay community over to the lgbtq tag, which is moderated by Tumblr staff. Already, there’s a petition going around there to get Yahoo to stop labeling LGBT tags as NSFW. Maybe there should be one directed at Apple, too.