Sunday December 04, 2022

Apple Needs to Fix Its Group Texting Abuse Problem

If you’re participating in a group text in Messages with devices that use SMS (such as Android phones), you can’t leave the group chat, and that makes iPhone owners vulnerable to abuse and bullying. Apple should fix this immediately—here’s how.

How Group Texting Abuse Happens

Here’s the core problem: Using their phone, anyone can send a text message to multiple phone numbers at once, creating a texting group. Any time someone replies to that group, the reply is sent out to every single phone number on the list. If anyone in the group uses a non-Apple phone (which is 86% of global smartphone users), the chat falls back to the ancient SMS standard, and there is no way to leave the group by choice.

The only way to get out of a SMS texting group is for people to create a new group chat and leave your number out of the list. Everyone in the list has to agree to stop using the old group, which is difficult with more than a handful of people.

Even if you delete the group text thread in Messages, the thread will show up again once someone replies. You’re locked in.

SMS, which turns 30 this year, doesn’t support any type of group management or moderation, and Apple’s avoidance of supporting a modern industry texting standard with moderation features puts some of its own customers at grave risk.

It’s More Common Than You Might Realize

On Apple’s own Communities discussion board, there are at least a dozen threads about getting stuck in abusive texting groups thanks to SMS, if not more. For the sake of privacy, we won’t get into the details here, but they can be harrowing to read. The threads stretch back a decade. There are more complaints on Reddit and even in the media.

Apple

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It’s not Apple’s responsibility to moderate every social dispute, but the firm could easily fix this particular problem with a technological solution, improving people’s lives by giving them the control they should have over their texting experience.

The Conventional Solutions Fall Short

There are currently a handful of ways to deal with an unwanted or abusive group texting scenario on an iPhone, but each has a significant catch or drawback that keeps them from being fully effective. Still, here’s a look at the conventional solutions to group texting abuse.

Leave an Apple-Only Group: If the conversation takes place entirely on Apple devices through the iMessage service, you can leave the chat group by tapping the group icons at the top of the screen, then selecting “Leave this Conversation.” This is great, but it can’t be the only solution. Apple only has a 14% global smartphone market share, which leaves 86% of people who can rope you into a group text that you can’t leave.
Mute the Conversation: You can mute a group conversation in Messages by swiping to the left and selecting the “Mute” button, which looks like a bell. You’ll no longer receive notifications when new messages to the group come in. The drawback is that you’ll still see the thread at the top of your incoming messages list whenever someone chats in the group again, so you can’t fully get away from it.
Block One Person: iPhone allows you to block the person sending the offending messages. To do so, tap the person’s contact name in the list, scroll down, and select “Block This Caller.” The drawback of doing this is that you’ll still see messages sent by others in the group, including replies to someone who is blocked, which might be responding to abusive behavior. Also, there are times you may need to still communicate with the person outside of the group, who isn’t abusive in a one-on-one context.
Block Everyone: If you’d like, you can go to an extreme and block everyone in the group texting list. You’ll no longer see any messages from the group, but this solution is often impractical if the group member list is very long—or if it includes people you don’t want to block otherwise.
Disable SMS Message Grouping: You can also disable grouping of SMS messages (Open Settings and turn Messages > Group Messaging to “Off”), which will split the messages into individual threads. But whenever someone replies to the group, you’ll still see the messages independently. Even if you block certain people, you’ll still see other replies to the group.

None of these existing solutions does what is needed: To put complete control of group texting participation into each person’s hands.

What Apple Should Do Instead

By now, you’ve seen the problem and how the conventional solutions don’t solve it. Luckily, there are at least two solutions Apple can implement soon to fix the problem of SMS group chat abuse.

Allow People to Block a Unique Group of Numbers: Apple could update Messages to allow users to block SMS group messages delivered to a certain unique group of numbers. Any messages sent outside of this group (to a different group of numbers or individually) would not be blocked. In practice, you’d be able to tap a button on the thread and select “Block This Group” or “Leave This Conversation,” then never see another message sent to that particular group of people again, completely killing the group text thread for the person blocking it.
Support RCS Within Messages: Apple is very proud of its proprietary iMessage network, which pioneered low-cost rich texting features using the Internet. But it’s time for Apple to welcome the rest of the world by supporting the RCS standard, whose specifications allow both leaving group chats (Section 3.2.4.11) and kicking abusive members from a chat (Section 3.2.4.12). Apple could keep using its exclusive iMessage service and label RCS messages with different-colored bubbles just like they currently do with SMS. If Apple supports RCS’s full feature set, everyone will benefit. SMS is almost 30 years old, and it’s time to leave it behind.

In a recent post on Daring Fireball, John Gruber wrote about RCS, “Why support a new protocol from phone carriers? We don’t use messaging services from our cable and fiber internet providers — why should we use a messaging service tied to our cell phone providers?”

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We now have a very good answer: Not everybody uses iPhones, and supporting RCS as an option for multi-platform texting will put Apple customers more firmly in control of their own communications. It will allow them to escape group bullying and abuse with a tap of the screen. That seems like a good enough reason to me.

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Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is an Associate Editor for How-To Geek. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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