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Beware the filth filter

By Arthur Goldstuck

A century from now, the word Saturday will be spelled Saterday, and the original spelling will not only fall into disuse, it will be regarded as wrong.

Why? Because it may become increasingly impossible to send documents or messages by e-mail if they contain that word.

Why? Because it contains a sequence of letters that may be picked up by some filtering software as an obscenity.

Increasingly, users of corporate e-mail are finding their mail being sent back from their own or other corporations because a filter installed on the mail server (a PC receiving and sending mail on a network) picks up one or other word as obscene and blocks it. This results in wonderful absurdities, not least those that occur when the software is set to root out rude words inside other words.

The art of absurd flitering reaches its high point, however, when the administrators of these systems take it upon themselves to decree words like “breast” and “balls” as
offensive to those of ultra-mild disposition. As a result, any mail containing terms like “breastplate” and “breast cancer” is rejected.

There may not yet be cases of mail sent on a Saturday being blocked, but the word is already blocked from use on certain chat systems, prompting participants to resort to the “Saterday” spelling.

Today, it will be in the chat systems, tomorrow, it will be in the corporate mail systems. In the future, the correct spelling of the word may well change.

No less than Africam, once the standard bearer of how South Africa could reach the world via the Web, imposed this situation on users of its chat rooms. It inserted the word *BLEEP* in the place of the forbidden word (“SaBLEEPay”), warned the offender, and logged the warning. Years later, that particular restriction was removed.

“I guess the system administrator finally got sick of the ridicule, read the manual, and used the ‘whole word’ option instead of the ‘included text’ one,” says one long-suffering user of the chat room.

But that still doesn’t resolve the issue of who decides what words you and I may view in our e-mail. It is clearly absurd for the decision to be in the hands of a network administrator who is trained in software configuration but has very little handle on the boundaries of human communications.

Usually, system administrators are too thick-skinned (or simply thick) to respond to howls of derision.

One of the major banks recently received unwanted publicity when a journalist was unable to send its staff an article to check whether they were correctly quoted, since one of them had made a comment in the article using a synonym for male
genitals. Appeals to the system administrator to modify the filter for certain needs and departments fell on deaf ears.

“The content filters these people use are often so simplistic in their methodology that it is a wonder any mail gets through,” one correspondent complains. “Many just scan for particular sequences of letters rather than complete words with, predictably ludicrous results.”

He is adamant that Internet service providers have no business filtering out offensive e-mail, as they would be doing so on a mass-filtered basis, and with no knowledge of
the intention of the messages. This applies to both spam and obscenity, both of which have ISPs under pressure to intervene.

Many systems look for key phrases contained in much of the spam doing the rounds, so that anything with a request for the mail to be sent to other contacts of the recipient may be blocked. A major engineering firm found that it could not distribute a vital document because the original recipient was being asked to do exactly that, and the spam filter kicked in to kick the message out.

“They invariably end up blocking legitimate e-mail in addition to the spam they are trying to stop. I get spammed to death, but I will not complain to my ISP lest they install one of these programs that were either written by a brain-dead programmer or, in the case of a competently written scanner, installed by a lazy, incompetent techie who refuses to read the manual.”

Most South African companies that fall foul are users of MailMarshal, an “automated content monitoring gateway”, which advises senders that it has not delivered a message “due to automatic rules that have determined that the message is probably junk email” or “contains profanity” or something similar.

A recent mailing by a staff member of a major ISP to an online forum received this treatement at the hands of a number of companies because it referred to the 25th anniversary of the Sex Pistols, the band that sparked the punk rock explosion in
the 1970s. The title of their seminal debut album, “Never Mind the Bollocks …”, means that it is forever taboo in many a corporation’s mail system.

The Mail & Guardian’s Krisjan Lemmer column reports that a friend trying to contact Nedcor about a classical music evening with Richard Cock was surprised to find the e-mail never got through: MailMarshal insisted she rephrase the e-mail as it regarded Cock`s name as “unacceptable language”, with a weighting of five on its scale of outrage.

But nothing can match the depths of absurdity to which the NBC network fell to in North America when they first set up bulletin boards for fans of some of their programs. They used simplistic filters that inserted substitution characters in
the place of offensive words, regardless of context. Words like “identity”, which contain a “filthy” word, came out looking like iden!!!y.

This gave rise to an ongoing in-joke: since each forbidden word had a different substitution string, observant people “learned the code” and posted insulting messages – knowing that some regulars would understand even if the target of
their wrath did not.

Ultimately, badly set-up filtering software creates far more embarrassment for a company than the obscenities it may be trying to block. It is not good enough for the decisions behind such filtering to be left to the network administrators: it is a policy issue, and one of corporate governance. If you don’t leave such a vital aspect of
business strategy to the person who looks after the security desk in your foyer, you can’t leave filtering rules in the hands of the person who manages your electronic access.

Will this newsletter reach all subscribers? Probably not. A few poorly configured MailMarshalls are sure to bounce it back for inclusion of dubious words. You can be sure we will report back on which companies are the culprits.

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and managing director of World Wide Worx, the leading independent technology and telecommunications research house. He can be contacted on mailto:arthurg@internet.org.za. For more information, visit the World Wide Worx web site at http://www.theworx.biz

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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