Warning: This article contains offensive language
The residents of the British city of Scunthorpe have a problem. It’s one they share with those who live in Wodonga, Pittwater, and any number of otherwise unassuming Australian towns.
The Scunthorpe problem, as it’s known, first came to light in 1996 when many of the good – and otherwise innocent – citizens of the British industrial city ran foul of internet filters at AOL.
They were refused permission to sign up for accounts because of the handful of letters in the middle of Scunthorpe that spell out an offensive word.
According to Wikipedia, it’s an issue that arises because computers can easily identify strings of text within a document, but actually interpreting words in a range of contexts, even across cultures, is too difficult.
Also known as the YASS PICKLE, the WODONGA FIX or COCKATOO CONUNDRUM https://t.co/ouW6QMOx3m
— David Astle (@dontattempt) December 17, 2018
In the end AOL, one of the biggest internet subscription providers at the time, solved its Scunthorpe problem by renaming the town in its servers as Sconthorpe.
However, it’s one thing to be black-banned because of the unfortunate name of the town where you live. It’s even worse if it’s your actual name that falls foul of the intractable internet censor.
Imagine, for example, being a Cummings, a Dickman or a Kuntz. Imagine being US journalist Natalie Weiner, who ran into trouble in August for simply trying to register with a high school sports outlet.
this is without a doubt the best thing that's ever happened to me pic.twitter.com/rnVkmhB2dy
— Natalie Weiner (@natalieweiner) August 28, 2018
Among those to respond to Weiner with sympathy were Jen Dick, Phillip Sporn, James Butts and Steve Cox.
“At one of my jobs, IT had to create a rule on email server to stop my emails from being rejected as porn spam,” Clark Aycock told Weiner.
According to online tech journal Motherboard, even the most advanced computer algorithms still struggle with context.
“This works both ways around,” Michael Veale, a researcher studying responsible machine learning at University College London, told Motherboard.
“Cock (a bird) and Dick (the given name) are both harmless in certain contexts, even in children’s settings online, but in other cases parents might not want them used. Equally, those wanting to abuse a system can find ways around it.”
All these people and towns have our sympathy here at The New Daily, because Scunthorpe’s unfortunate issue is also one we deal with every day.
As our loyal readers will know, we send out daily and monthly email newsletters. Coming up with headlines and subject lines that walk the fine line between engaging and inadvertently offensive can be an absolute minefield.
Words that are obviously offensive are definitely out, of course. But what about Sussex, same-sex, freedom, assets or assassinate? Spam filters say ‘no’.
So, spare a thought for us the next time there is a political sex scandal or when the Duchess of Sussex steps out at Sandringham on Christmas Day.
We’ll be wracking our frazzled brains in desperate attempts to not go the way of the innocent burghers of Scunthorpe.