Buttbuttination – or – The Scunthorpe Problem

I’m pretty sure everybody has come across this. You send a mail, type something in chat, or try to post something on a forum, and your statement is either rejected or comes out garbled. What’s at work there are filter systems, so you might find yourself talking about the “Buttbuttination of Abraham Lincoln” or the “Consbreastution of the United States”. Clbuttic. Okay, I’m embarbutted by the products of my fellow programmers…

Conclusion #1: Obscenity filters don’t work. At all.

If you google for terms like “buttbuttination” today, you’ll probably find more sites about how bad obscenity filters are then actual sites with those replacements, mainly because most filter systems will replace words with asterisks or refuse to accept the post in the first place. (And you might find an actual case of buttbuttination…) The problem persists, and is mostly called The Clbuttic Mistake. While being mostly funny, those filters directly lead to the Scuntorpe Problem.

Now, a rather obvious solution is to replace only full words. All that requires is a longer list of “offensive words”, so its not a technical problem to do so. But even then, you still cannot talk about or link to a bird or a town in Austria.

Conclusion #2: Obscenity filters limit your free speech.

At the same time, those who really want to use obscene words will always find a way around it: “sc.unthorpe”, “pron” or just plain “f*ck“. Replacing letter-Os with zeros or letter-Ls with captial Is or ones etc. effectively circumvent those filters and leave them useless.

Conclusion #3: Obscenity filters do not limit the use of obscene words.

So in the end, obscenity filters are just an inconvenience for most of us, but a great pain in the neck for some.

Final Conclusion: Stop using obscenity filters.

There is not a single reason why your forum, your chat, your blog, your mailsystem your whatever should have one. If it does have one, talk to your IT department, your webhost, your server company, and have them explain to you, why Mr. Cockburn cannot access your site, or why you cannot receive mails from a mathematician. And do remember to ask them how they would feel if they were born with that name. And don’t let them fool you with “it does more good than harm”. It does no good, and lots of harm to admittedly few people. If you feel the need to remove cursing from your site/board/whatever, consider getting personell to moderate it.

Is it over, yet?

Now if you thought I was done with my rant, guess again. The other day I came across a site that turns text into very pretty words clouds. Its a free service, and a great time sink. Among other options, this very nice piece of software lets you choose a font. And one of those fonts is named “Sexsmith”. Jonathan Feinberg, the author of the website, repeatedly got requests to rename the font. Why? Because people thought it was “unsafe” for use in schools. Just because it has the letters S, E and X in it! Luckily, Jonathan Feinberg did not do as requested and put the reason on his FAQs.

A number of people have obviously been exposed to word filters for too long, they got stuck in their brains. Are they just plain stupid or religious fanatics? I will probably never find out, but it makes me sad to know that somewhere out there children have teachers like that. And I’m afraid, “somewhere out there” is probably closer than I would imagine.


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