alright let's talk about Apple and Tumblr's current predicament.
If you don't know already, I used to work at Tumblr as an iOS engineer. Though I keep in touch with current staff at Tumblr (what little that are left that I know) I do not have picture of what's going on internally. The banned word list is absolutely perplexing and I can only theorize why tags like 'long post' are banned from appearing on iOS. What I can do is give you a peek into how the Apple App Store review process works, so you have an idea of the hell that Tumblr staff is dealing with right now.
Let me be clear about this from the get-go: I think Apple's censorship policies are wrong and they have no grounds to be policing adult content within apps on the app store. Apple's power to set content policy over apps is absolutely fueled first and foremost by internal policy that goes back to Steve Jobs. After that, they're beholden to payment processors wanting to distance themselves from porn. Finally, there's lawmakers and policy that influence them as well. I think these are the 3 things that shape their policy decisions, in order.
What happens when you submit an App to the App Store?
You compile an app and submit it to the app store, and it proceeds through an automated and manual process to review your app to ensure it meets Apple's standards. Apple's standards are 1) non-malicious, functioning programs, and 2) programs that adhere to the App Store's review guidelines that cannot be asserted in the same way a program can. These guidelines are judged by a human being assigned to your app during the review process. The review process used to be long, sometimes it would take weeks, but in recent years they've got it down to about 24 hours.
Now, there's a laundry list of things in those guidelines, but we're going to focus on adult content because that's the most relevant. If a reviewer runs your app and finds porn, your app is rejected and you're told to correct the problem.
What's Tumblr dealing with now?
In the case of Tumblr, this would be a reviewer going to search, typing in something like 'tits' and finding porn. Sometimes they would search something more innocuous like 'socks' (yeah, i know) and find porn. Sometimes they would search something completely innocent and find porn anyways. Tumblr would get rejected.
This happened regularly. I'd say once every 5 updates (every time Tumblr updates the iOS app, they have to re-submit the app for review). A reviewer would find porn, and respond by sending us the steps they followed to find it and a screenshot of the content. Tumblr staff would remove the porn, resubmit, the reviewer would find nothing, then approve the app. Once in a while Tumblr would get a really persistent reviewer. It would take a handful of porn scrubs and re-submissions before they'd finally green-light an update.
Sometimes, however, Tumblr would get a reviewer who flags tumblr for porn, and when Tumblr opened the rejection notice, the screenshot would be something completely not porn. I'm talking stuff like a woman in a bikini. Not even posing in a porny way. Something you'd see in like, a laser hair removal ad. In these cases, Tumblr would appeal the rejection, saying the content doesn't violate our policies (and to the best of our knowledge, Apple's) so we won't remove it.
In this case, the appeal gets bumped up to a developer support contact that would manage the appeal. Usually when it got there, the contact would look at the report and say "oh, yeah, that's not porn" and tell us to re-submit the app again. It then would usually be approved.
This process, I believe, is where the problem lies. Of course, the bigger picture is Apple's adult content policies, but the relationship between reviewer, developer support, and policymakers is completely fucking discordant. Since the review process is human, some reviewers interpret the guidelines more strict that others. Since the review process chooses a random reviewer, the review experience is random every time.
The developer support contact is not in direct contact with the reviewer and does not communicate with them in any way, other than the report they receive from the review (that Tumblr has too). The dev support contact also cannot tell Tumblr whether they'll pass review if they were to propose hypothetical changes to Tumblr.
Here's the kicker: your developer support contact will also, like the reviewer, not be consistent from case to case. They stick with you until your appeal is complete, but when you have to open a new case for a subsequent rejection, it's someone new. And every one of them had different answers to the same questions about policies regarding adult content.
I really don't think the people enforcing Apple's app store guidelines have a clear answer on what's porn and what's not, and they're left to decide on a case-by case basis. Apple is fucking massive, and it's a waterfall organization where orders come from the top down. If Tumblr gets rejected because a reviewer decided a woman in a bikini is pornographic, no one in Apple gives a shit. I bet no more than a handful of people in Apple right now are even aware of the situation with Tumblr, and just one person (the dev support contact) is deciding what Tumblr must do to resolve it and stay on the App store.
The 2018 porn ban
I was present for the 2018 app store fiasco and boy, it was mind boggling. The removal was legit since Apple had received a user-submitted report of CSAM, and by policy they immediately yank an app that contains such content. That was 100% understandable, and if I were in Apple's shoes, I too would remove an app that has CSAM in it. But what followed was a gauntlet of rigorous reviews over adult content in general. The app was rejected repeatedly until the infamous adult content ban was fully enacted.
While Tumblr was actively working on the ban, they were asking Apple for any sort of guidance on what would meet approval, because as you know it's impossible to scrub a UGC site of adult content. The answers we got were either vague or unhelpful. Tumblr had to just keep re-submitting over and over with a half-baked porn finding algorithm until it finally looked clean enough for Apple.
During this time, we'd be searching Twitter, Instagram, etc, for the same search terms that we were being rejected for, and finding lots and lots of porn. When the rep was asked if other apps went through the same rigamarole that Tumblr was going through, and why they had porn on their apps, the answers we got were "we can't discuss other apps" (of course) and "that shouldn't happen".
Now, I do not want to get conspiratorial about this because I genuinely don't think Apple has it out for Tumblr. What I do think is it's a combination of the discordant enforcement of policy, caused by the complete separation of policymaker, support, and reviewer. It's also less of a problem for other apps like Twitter, Instagram, etc because they have many, many more staff to deal with the problem. They have more staff to build and maintain porn-removing algorithms, and more staff to put out fires caused by App Store rejections.
A little part of me also wants to be cynical and say that since Instagram and Twitter are so big, they can get away with more than Tumblr can. Combine that with Tumblr's history of blatantly allowing porn up until the end of 2018. I can't prove it, of course, but if Tumblr has a reputation at Apple, it can't be a good one.
Apple's reputation amongst developers
As I mentioned I'm an iOS engineer. I talk to other iOS engineers all the time, not only at my current job but also in other places like Slack instances for iOS development. The iOS engineers at Tumblr did not like Apple's bullshit one bit, which is unsurprising. However, my experience thus far is the vast, vast majority of iOS engineers at other places feel the same way. Apple's review process is seen as an asinine hurdle you must clear. Their policies are not viewed in good light amongst iOS devs, though you'll have a mixed bag of sympathy over being rejected for some of them like the adult content one. It really depends if you've worked on any UGC apps on the app store. If you have, you get it.
Outside of adult content, though, the two other big ones that rub iOS devs the wrong way are the 30% cut Apple gets when devs get paid, and the completely arbitrary policy that Apps submitted to the app store must have a "clear purpose". I haven't talked to a single iOS dev who's been on the side of Apple in the Epic v Apple case over the 30% cut, and most of them are hoping for Apple to loosen up their control over the App Store (either voluntarily or by court order). The "clear purpose" policy means that reviewers can reject the app if they think it's useless, which is incredibly discouraging for new developers who are just trying to get out there with something simple. It also squelches creativity and reduces the field for more single-purpose apps.
Aside from App Store review guidelines, iOS developers also have to deal with ever-shifting technical guidelines that can be unclear, with deadlines that change or are vague as well. A good example of this was a recent change that required all Apps that were available on iPad to support split-screen multitasking. Not only did I get conflicting answers on what that means from Apple themselves and devs who were in contact with other Apple reps. No one knew if their iPad app would be yanked from the store, or if there was a way to opt out. This requirement forced many companies to scramble to update their iPad experience to meet this deadline, only for the requirement to be relaxed, and the deadline to be pushed back. Fun times, great use of dev hours.
The Apple fanboy you can picture when I say "Apple fanboy" is very unlikely to be an iOS developer. They probably just love Apple products and think that the company can do no wrong. The more Apple does to piss off their developers, the worse it's going to get for anyone who just wants to use an iPhone.
Anywho, that's Apple for you. Why am I still an iOS developer? I dunno, I got bills to pay. I think I know what Tumblr is working on to appease them. Don't expect this banned word list to last too long. The timing is awful, of course, since everyone on Apple is on vacation, and Tumblr is too. Have fun with the chaos for now. As always, don't take it out on staff. They're doing what they can.
My asks are open if you have any questions. I'll try to answer them.