Scunthorpe problem

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An example of the Scunthorpe problem in Wikipedia because of a regular expression match

The Scunthorpe problem is the unintentional blocking of websites, e-mails, forum posts or search results by a spam filter or search engine because their text contains a string (or substring) of letters that appear to have an obscene or otherwise unacceptable meaning. Names, abbreviations, and technical terms are most often cited as being affected by the issue.

The problem arises since computers can easily identify strings of text within a document, but interpreting words of this kind requires considerable ability to interpret a wide range of contexts, possibly across many cultures, which is an extremely difficult task. As a result, broad blocking rules may result in false positives affecting innocent phrases.

Origin and history[edit]

The problem was named after an incident in 1996 in which AOL's profanity filter prevented residents of the town of Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, from creating accounts with AOL, because the town's name contains the substring "cunt".[1] In the early 2000s, Google's opt-in SafeSearch filters apparently made the same mistake, preventing people from searching for local businesses or URLs that included Scunthorpe in their names.[2]

Other examples[edit]

Mistaken decisions by obscenity filters include:

Refused web domain names and account registrations[edit]

  • In April 1998, Jeff Gold attempted to register the domain name shitakemushrooms.com, but due to the substring shit he was blocked by an InterNIC filter prohibiting the "seven dirty words".[3] (Shiitake is from the Japanese name for the edible fungus Lentinula edodes.)
  • In 2000, a Canadian television news story on web filtering software found that the website for the Montreal Urban Community (Communauté urbaine de Montréal, in French) was entirely blocked because its domain name was its French acronym CUM (www.cum.qc.ca);[4] "cum" (among other meanings) is English-language slang for semen.
  • In February 2004 in Scotland, Craig Cockburn reported that he was unable to use his surname (pronounced "Coburn") with Hotmail. Separately he had problems with his workplace email because his job title, software specialist, contained the substring Cialis, an erectile dysfunction medication commonly mentioned in spam e-mails. Hotmail initially told him to spell his name C0ckburn (with a zero instead of the letter "o") but later reversed the ban.[5] In 2010, he had a similar problem registering on the BBC website, where again the first four characters of his surname caused a problem for the content filter.[6]
  • In February 2006, Linda Callahan 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.[7]
  • In July 2008, Dr. Herman I. Libshitz could not register an e-mail address containing his name with Verizon because his surname contained the substring shit, and Verizon initially rejected his request for an exception. In a subsequent statement, a Verizon spokeswoman apologized for not approving his desired e-mail address.[8]
  • In August 2018, Natalie Weiner reported on social media that she was unable to create an account for herself on a website, because her last name is also a word used as slang for penis. It was reported that "hundreds" of people replied saying this affected them as well. Names of those replying included Ben Schmuck (last name is a Yiddish word for "penis"), and Arun Dikshit (last name is Sanskrit for one who teaches or provides knowledge, containing the substring shit).[9][10][11] Articles covering this stated that it was a common and extremely difficult technical problem for which no robust solution was currently available.[9]

Blocked web searches[edit]

  • In the months leading up to January 1996, some web searches for Super Bowl XXX were being filtered, because the Roman numeral for the game and the site (XXX) is also used to identify pornography.[12]
  • Gareth Roelofse, the web designer for RomansInSussex.com, noted in 2004: "We found many library Net stations, school networks and Internet cafes block sites with the word 'sex' in the domain name. This was a challenge for RomansInSussex.co.uk because its target audience is school children."[2]
  • In 2008, the filter of the free wireless service of the town of Whakatane in New Zealand blocked searches involving the town's own name because the filter's phonetic analysis deemed the "whak" to sound like fuck; the town name is in Māori, and in the Māori language "wh" is most commonly pronounced as "f". The town subsequently put the town name on the filter's whitelist.[13]
  • In July 2011, web searches in China on the name Jiang were blocked following claims on the Sina Weibo microblogging site that former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Jiang Zemin had died. Since the word "Jiang" meaning "river" is written with the same Chinese character (江), searches related to rivers including the Yangtze (Cháng Jiāng) produced the message: "According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results of this search cannot be displayed."[14]
  • In February 2018, web searches on Google's shopping platform were blocked for items such as glue guns, Guns N' Roses, and Burgundy wine after Google hastily patched its search system that was displaying results for weapons and accessories that violated Google's stated policies.[15]

Blocked emails[edit]

  • In 2001, Yahoo! Mail introduced an email filter which automatically replaced JavaScript-related strings with alternative versions, to prevent the possibility of JavaScript viruses in HTML email. The filter would hyphenate the terms "Javascript", "Jscript", "Vbscript" and "Livescript"; and replaced "eval", "mocha" and "expression" with the similar but not quite synonymous terms "review", "espresso" and "statement", respectively. Assumptions were involved in the writing of the filters: no attempts were made to limit these string replacements to anchor script sections and attributes, or to respect word boundaries, in case this would leave some loopholes open. This resulted in such errors as medireview in place of medieval.[16][17][18]
  • In February 2003, Members of Parliament at the British House of Commons found that a new spam filter was blocking e-mails to them. It blocked e-mails containing references to the Sexual Offences Bill then under debate, as well as some messages relating to a Liberal Democrat consultation paper on censorship.[19] It also blocked e-mails sent in Welsh because it did not recognise the language.[20]
  • In October 2004, it was reported that the Horniman Museum in London was failing to receive some of its e-mail because filters mistakenly treated its name as a version of the words horny man. Horny is a common slang term for "sexually aroused or arousing".[21]
  • Problems can occur with the words socialism, socialist, and specialist because they contain the substring Cialis. Blocking of the word specialist is liable to block emailed résumés and curricula vitarum and other material including job descriptions.[22]

Blocked for words with two meanings[edit]

  • In October 2004, e-mails advertising the pantomime Dick Whittington sent by a teacher from Norwich in the UK were blocked by school computers because of the use of the name Dick, sometimes used as slang for penis.[23]
  • In May 2006, a man in Manchester in the UK found that e-mails he wrote to his local council to complain about a planning application had been blocked as they contained the word erection when referring to a structure.[24]
  • Blocked e-mails and web searches relating to The Beaver, a magazine based in Winnipeg, caused the publisher to change its name to Canada's History in 2010, after 89 years of publication.[25][26] Publisher Deborah Morrison commented: "Back in 1920, The Beaver was a perfectly appropriate name. And while its other meaning [vulva] is nothing new, its ambiguity began to pose a whole new challenge with the advance of the Internet. The name became an impediment to our growth".[27]
  • In June 2010, Twitter blocked a user from Luxembourg 29 minutes after he had opened his account and posted his first tweet. The tweet read: "Finally! A pair of great tits (Parus major) has moved into my birdhouse!" Despite including the Latin name to point out that the tweet was about birds, any attempts to unblock the account were in vain.[28]
  • In 2011, a councillor in Dudley found an email flagged for profanity by his council's security software after mentioning the Black Country dish, faggots (a type of meatball, but also a pejorative term for gay men).[29]
  • Residents of Penistone in South Yorkshire have had e-mails blocked because the town's name includes the substring penis.[30]
  • Lightwater in Surrey suffered similarly because its name contains the substring twat.
  • Residents of Clitheroe (Lancashire, England) have been repeatedly inconvenienced because their town's name includes the substring clit, which is short for "clitoris".[31]
  • Résumés containing references to graduating with Latin honors such as cum laude, summa cum laude, and magna cum laude have been blocked by spam filters because of inclusion of the word cum, which is Latin for with (in this usage), but is sometimes used as slang for semen or ejaculation in English usage.[32]

News articles[edit]

  • In June 2008, a news site run by the anti-LGBT American Family Association filtered an Associated Press article on sprinter Tyson Gay, replacing instances of "gay" with "homosexual", thus rendering his name as "Tyson Homosexual".[33][34] This same function had previously changed the name of basketball player Rudy Gay to "Rudy Homosexual".[35]
  • The word or string "ass" may be replaced by "butt", resulting in "clbuttic" for "classic" and "buttbuttinate" for "assassinate".[36]

Other[edit]

  • In 2008 Microsoft confirmed that its policy to prevent words relating to sexual orientation meant that Richard Gaywood's name was offensive and could not be used in his "gamertag" or in the "Real Name" section of his bio. [37]
  • In 2011 the video games Pokémon Black and White versions, the Pokémon Cofagrigus could not be traded online to other players without a nickname because its name contained the pejorative fag. The system has since been updated to allow trades of Cofagrigus without nicknames.
  • In November 2013, British Facebook temporarily blocked users for using the pejorative faggot in reference to the dish faggot.[38]
  • In January 2014, files used in the online game League of Legends were reported as being blocked by some UK ISP filters due to the names 'VarusExpirationTimer.luaobj' and 'XerathMageChainsExtended.luaobj' containing the letters used in the word "sex".[39]
  • In May 2018, the website of the grocery store Publix would not allow a cake to be ordered containing the Latin phrase summa cum laude. The customer attempted to rectify the problem by including special instructions but still ended up with a cake reading "Summa --- Laude".[40][41]
  • In May 2020, despite extensive media scrutiny, some hashtags directly referring to British political advisor Dominic Cummings were unable to trend on Twitter because the substring cum in Cummings' surname triggered Twitter's anti-porn filter.[42]
  • In October 2020, a profanity filter banned the words "bone", "pubic", and "stream" at a paleontology conference.[43]
  • In January 2021, Facebook apologised for flagging the Devon landmark Plymouth Hoe as misogynistic, muting users and giving them a ban.[44]
  • In April 2021, the official Facebook page for Bitche was taken down. According to Valérie Degouy, they have tried to appeal the ban but there was no response from Facebook about the issue. In response, the commune officials has recreated a new Facebook page referencing instead its postal code, Mairie 57230. The officials of Rohrbach-lès-Bitche has also renamed their Facebook page as Ville de Rohrbach as a precautionary measure. [45][46]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Clive Feather (25 April 1996). Peter G. Neumann (ed.). "AOL censors British town's name!". The Risks Digest.
  2. ^ a b McCullagh, Declan (23 April 2004). "Google's chastity belt too tight". CNET. Archived from the original on 16 June 2011.
  3. ^ Festa, Paul (27 April 1998). "Food domain found "obscene"". News.com. Archived from the original on 10 May 2020.
  4. ^ "Foire aux questions". radio-canada.ca. Archived from the original on 21 October 2012. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  5. ^ Barker, Garry (26 February 2004). "How Mr C0ckburn fought spam". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 3 September 2009.
  6. ^ Cockburn, Craig (9 March 2010). "BBC fail – my correct name is not permitted". blog.siliconglen.com. Archived from the original on 30 September 2020.
  7. ^ "Is Yahoo Banning Allah?". Kallahar's Place. Archived from the original on 14 January 2016. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  8. ^ Rubin, Daniel. "When your name gets turned against you". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Archived from the original on 5 August 2008. Retrieved 3 August 2008.
  9. ^ a b "The 'Scunthorpe Problem' Has Never Really Been Solved - Slashdot".
  10. ^ Weiner, Natalie (28 August 2018). "this is without a doubt the best thing that's ever happened to mepic.twitter.com/rnVkmhB2dy".
  11. ^ "Twitter / Account Suspended". twitter.com.
  12. ^ "E-Rate And Filtering: A Review Of The Children's Internet Protection Act". Congressional Hearings. General. Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. 4 April 2001.
  13. ^ "F-Word Town's Name Gets Censored By Internet Filter". Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. Retrieved 27 July 2011.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  14. ^ Chin, Josh (6 July 2011). "Following Jiang Death Rumors, China's Rivers Go Missing". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 13 August 2011.
  15. ^ Molloy, Mark (27 February 2018). "Wine lovers cannot buy Burgundy tipple on Google as internet giant cracks down on 'gun' searches". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2 March 2018. Retrieved 27 February 2018.
  16. ^ "Yahoo admits mangling e-mail". BBC News. 19 July 2002. Archived from the original on 26 January 2021. Retrieved 21 June 2013.
  17. ^ "Hard news". Need To Know 2002-07-12. 12 July 2002. Retrieved 21 June 2013.
  18. ^ Knight, Will (15 July 2002). "Email security filter spawns new words". New Scientist. Archived from the original on 24 September 2020. Retrieved 21 June 2013.
  19. ^ "E-mail vetting blocks MPs' sex debate". BBC News. 4 February 2003. Archived from the original on 4 February 2021.
  20. ^ "Software blocks MPs' Welsh e-mail". BBC News. 5 February 2003. Archived from the original on 4 February 2021.
  21. ^ Kwintner, Adrian (5 October 2004). "Name of museum is confused with porn". News Shopper.
  22. ^ "Comment headaches". The Peking Duck. 21 November 2004.
  23. ^ Jones, Sam (13 October 2004). "Panto email falls foul of filth filter". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 February 2021.
  24. ^ "E-mail filter blocks 'erection'". 30 May 2006. Archived from the original on 4 February 2021.
  25. ^ "The Beaver mag renamed to end porn mix-up". The Sydney Morning Herald. Agence France-Presse. 13 January 2010. Archived from the original on 9 November 2020. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  26. ^ Austen, Ian (24 January 2010). "Web Filters Cause Name Change for a Magazine". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 9 November 2020. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  27. ^ Sheerin, Jude (29 March 2010). "How spam filters dictated Canadian magazine's fate". BBC News. Archived from the original on 16 January 2021.
  28. ^ "Luxemburger Twitter-Neubenutzer nach 29 Minuten blockiert" [Luxembourg new Twitter user blocked after 29 minutes]. Tageblatt (in German). 22 June 2010. Retrieved 12 June 2010.[dead link]
  29. ^ "Black Country Councillor Caught up in Faggots Farce". Birmingham Mail. 24 February 2011.
  30. ^ Tom Chatfield (17 April 2013). "The 10 best words the internet has given English". The Guardian.
  31. ^ Keyes, Ralph (2010). Unmentionables: From Family Jewels to Friendly Fire – What We Say Instead of What We Mean. John Murray. ISBN 978-1-84854-456-7.
  32. ^ Maher, Kris. "Don't Let Spam Filters Snatch Your Resume". Career Journal. Archived from the original on 23 October 2006. Retrieved 11 February 2008.
  33. ^ Frauenfelder, Mark (30 June 2008). "Homophobic news site changes athlete Tyson Gay to Tyson Homosexual". Boing Boing. Archived from the original on 4 February 2021.
  34. ^ Arthur, Charles (30 June 2008). "Computer autocorrects surname 'gay' to.. no, you guess". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 13 November 2020.
  35. ^ Mantyla, Kyle (30 June 2008). "The Dangers of Auto-Replace". Right Wing Watch. People for the American Way. Archived from the original on 25 October 2020. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  36. ^ Moore, Matthew (2 September 2008). "The Clbuttic Mistake: When obscenity filters go wrong". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 23 February 2020.
  37. ^ "Microsoft Confirms "Gaywood" Is An Offensive Surname, Mr. Gaywood Responds". May 2008. Archived from the original on 9 November 2012.
  38. ^ "Faggots and peas fall foul of Facebook censors". Express & Star. November 2013. Archived from the original on 10 May 2020.
  39. ^ Gibbs, Samuel (21 January 2014). "UK porn filter blocks game update that contained 'sex'". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020.
  40. ^ Ferguson, Amber (22 May 2018). "Proud mom orders 'Summa Cum Laude' cake online. Publix censors it: Summa … Laude". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 24 February 2021. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  41. ^ Amatulli, Jenna (22 May 2018). "Publix Censors Teen's 'Summa Cum Laude' Graduation Cake". The Huffington Post. Archived from the original on 5 September 2018.
  42. ^ Hern, Alex (27 May 2020). "Anti-porn filters stop Dominic Cummings trending on Twitter". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 20 February 2021.
  43. ^ Ferreira, Becky (15 October 2020). "A Profanity Filter Banned the Word 'bone' at a Paleontology Conference". Motherboard. Archived from the original on 23 February 2021.
  44. ^ Morris, Steven (27 January 2021). "Facebook apologises for flagging Plymouth Hoe as offensive term". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 29 January 2021.
  45. ^ Kempf, Cédric (12 April 2021). "Insolite : Bitche est censuré par Facebook". Radio Mélodie (in French).
  46. ^ Darmanin, Jules (13 April 2021). "Facebook takes down official page for French town of Bitche". POLITICO.