The Scunthorpe problem

I love looking through Wikipedia – you never know what you are going to come across. The other day I saw a piece about the Scunthorpe problem which occurs when:

The Scunthorpe problem occurs when a spam filter or search engine blocks e-mails or search results because their text contains a string of letters that are shared by an obscene word. While computers can easily identify strings of text within a document, broad blocking rules will result in a false positive, causing innocent phrases to be blocked.

 I had been vaguely aware that the aforementioned town had had problems with AOL because of the substring of four letters within its name that represent the strongest swearword in the English language. Scunthorpe’s residents were in fact barred from joining AOL because the obscenity filter was unable to substring from the bigger picture. I am interested in censorship and I did a post Free speech versus Homo Censoris, but that was about human censorship. I hadn’t looked at the absurdities of computer censorship. Here are some examples I found on the Internet:

The Daily Telegraph had this example of an absurd sentence created by software designed to remove offensive words from articles posted on the internet;

“President Abraham Lincoln was buttbuttinated by an armed buttailant after a life devoted to the reform of the US consbreastution.”

In May 2006 Ray Kennedy from Manchester found that e-mails that he had written to his local council to complain about a planning application had been blocked as they contained the word erection when referring to a structure.

Résumés of magna cum laude graduates have been blocked by spam filters.

The BBC online chatrooms always used to automatically censor the word ‘shat’. This caused discussions about Star Trek, featuring that great actor William Shatner, to become a whole different experience. After several complaints from users, the word was (quietly) removed from the automatic censor.

Many Christian websites automatically change “gay” to “homosexual”. In June 2008, a news site run by the American Family Association censored an Associated Press article on sprinter Tyson Gay, replacing instances of “gay” with homosexual, thus rendering his name as “Tyson Homosexual”.

In February 2004, Craig Cockburn of Scotland reported that he was unable to use his surname with Hotmail, Yahoo! or his workplace computers. He discovered that his e-mails would be delivered if he spelled his name C0ckburn with a zero instead of the letter “O”

In February 2006 Linda Callahan, a resident of Ashfield, Massachusetts was initially prevented from registering her name with Yahoo! as an e-mail address as it contained the substring Allah. Yahoo! later reversed the ban.

Beaver College changed its name to Arcadia University and after 89 years of publication the magazine The Beaver changed its name to Canada’s History.

In October 2004, e-mails advertising the pantomime Dick Whittington sent by a teacher from Norwich in the UK were blocked by school computers

The words socialism, socialist and specialist contain the substring Cialis, the brand name for an erectile dysfunction medication commonly advertised in spam e-mails. Well I suppose there had to be some positive and anything that hinders the spread of socialism can’t be all bad.


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