Tumblr banned these words to satisfy Apple safety standards

Well, don’t post just anything.
Well, don’t post just anything.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas White
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A bald, single dad with a beard must be careful about posting a selfie on Tumblr. As of Dec. 21, there are at least four different ways Tumblr might block access to his blog post, in order to comply with the stringent safety standards Apple maintains for all apps on its App Store.

Tumblr now limits users’ ability to search for posts tagged “bald,” “single dad,” “beard,” and “selfie,” among hundreds of other keywords, for fear of running afoul of Apple’s safety standards. In a Dec. 21 update, Tumblr developers said they were expanding “the definition of what sensitive content is as well as the way you access it in order to comply with [Apple’s] guidelines.” They noted that some search queries may turn up fewer results than usual, and others “might not produce any results at all.”

Apple’s safety policy states that iOS apps “should not include content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, in exceptionally poor taste, or just plain creepy,” and goes on to detail specific prohibitions on porn, gore, hate speech, content that encourages self-harm, and so on.

Tumblr was already kicked off the App Store once in 2018 when child pornography was found on the site; although Tumblr used to take a laissez-faire approach to porn on the platform, it responded to the Apple ban by abruptly banning all adult content, sparking outcry from sex workers and other grown-up, consenting users.

With its latest change, Tumblr appears to have taken a very broad interpretation of Apple’s rules. A Tumblr user who runs a blog called bannedtags has compiled a list of at least 446 tags that Tumblr has blocked from appearing in search results, based on their own attempts to search for the words on the iOS app. In addition to blocking obviously fraught words like “penis,” “cocaine,” and “gore,” Tumblr also appears to ban innocuous words like “girl,” “sad,” and “me.”

The bizarre list of blocked terms highlights the outsized power that a few big tech companies have to regulate app developers’ content moderation policies. Apple and Google, which run the world’s two smartphone operating systems, can set any rules they want about the kind of apps they’ll allow on their platforms. Apple, Google, and Amazon—which runs AWS, one of the world’s largest web hosting services—flexed their regulatory muscle earlier this year by banning Parler, which forced the right-wing social media app to change its leadership and usher in a slew of new content moderation practices.

A sampling of Tumblr’s banned words

The Tumblr user who compiled the list of blocked words has stressed it’s not comprehensive and may change over time. But here are some of its stranger entries, as of the time of publication:

  • About
  • About me
  • ACAB (an abbreviation for “all cops are bastards,” an anti-police rallying cry)
  • Alec Lightwood (a fictional character from the show The Shadowhunters)
  • Alice May (the actress who voices Peppa Pig?)
  • Answered (a tag that lets people know this post is a response to a question submitted via Tumblr’s “ask” feature)
  • Anxiety
  • Bald
  • Beard
  • Big
  • Depression
  • Diaper
  • Eli speaks (a motivational speaker?)
  • Eugene Levy (an actor known for his roles in Schitt’s Creek and American Pie, among other shows and movies)
  • Girl
  • Heels
  • Insomnia
  • Kim Doyeon (a Kpop singer)
  • Long post
  • Me
  • Mine
  • My face
  • My life
  • My photos
  • My post
  • My stuff
  • My thing
  • My video
  • My voice
  • Queue (a tag used to let people know a post was scheduled using Tumblr’s “queue” feature)
  • Reblog
  • Repost
  • Sad
  • Self
  • Self reblog
  • Selfie
  • Single dad
  • Single mom
  • Single parent
  • Snap
  • Submission (a tag Tumblr automatically applies to posts that have been submitted to a blog)
  • Tagged
  • Testicular cancer
  • Tony the Tiger (the cartoon mascot for the cereal Frosted Flakes)
  • True crime
  • Upset
  • 1k (a tag sometimes used to celebrate reaching 1,000 followers)