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The Daily Beast published a report today that points out that Apple devices like the iPhone have a "kill-list" of around 14,000 words don't register a misspelling when written correctly but fail to offer a suggestion when you spell them incorrectly. Many of these--such as "abortion" and "bullet"--are associated with controversies and hot-button subjects, leading some commentators to describe Apple's actions as tantamount to censorship.
Here's a further sampling of the words you won't see when you thumb over words marked as spelled incorrectly: bullet, ammo, drunken, abduct, murder, Aryan, bigot, rape, marijuana, pornography, prostitute, and suicide. Whatever the reasons for Apple's actions, the practice admittedly doesn't sound too distant from actions that Apple's taken in the past, such as its decision to remove the sketchy "Bang with Friends" app from the App Store last May.
At least one of the sources the Daily Beast contacted seemed unsurprised. In the words of Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "Apple is one of the most censorious companies out there. It isn't censorship outright, but it is annoying, and it's denying choice to customers." York went on to tell the Daily Beast of Apple's non-participation in the Global Network Initiative, which the DB described as "a nonprofit partnership between Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and a number of human-rights groups and other organizations advocating for free expression online." For his part, Michael Keller, the article of the Daily Beast article, seems to believe there's a political agenda behind the decision.
But for all the cries of censorship, Boston.com has a much more practical take on why such a practice exists. Quite simply, it's meant to prevent serious misunderstandings if someone mistypes a word and presses the wrong autocorrect choice--in other words, a more serious form of what you see on popular humor sites like Damn You Auto Correct! In the words of Michael Morisy, the writer of Boston.com's post on the subject, "The cost of an accidental 'cuckold,' 'deflowering,' or worse airdropping into a conversation can potentially be incalculable." That especially seems true of words like rape and murder, which could result in an unwelcome visit by the police if used to correct words like "rope" or "mother" and read by suspicious parties. (As Morisy points out, though, Siri's allowed to cuss like a sailor.)
That prudence seems to be the most likely explanation, although Alexis Kleinman of the Huffington Post took the same concept in a different direction, calling the practice "ultraconservative" and arguing that victims of domestic violence who text 911 might be misunderstood if their typo'ed messages come in. Based on my own experiments with the feature (partially illustrated in the screenshot above), there seems to be little to worry about in that regard. With many if not most of the words above, slight misspellings simply returned "No Replacements Found" as opposed to a suggestion. In other words, Apple seems to have thought this through--a misspelled word from that list is far more likely to be properly understood than another word entirely.
Follow this article's writer, Leif Johnson, on Twitter.