Facebook recently hit the headlines again, this time for blocking a page about the town of Effin in Limerick, Ireland, for being “offensive.” Though this example went viral, it’s a common issue which is usually well hidden below the radar – despite the problems it causes for so many internet users.
Hilarity and embarrassment
Many companies employ obscenity tagging systems to protect their customers from the ire of others (and/or from their own staff). Unfortunately, most systems have proven to be blunt instruments capable of causing many problems for customers.
They work like this. Systems are populated with long lists of words, created after much hilarity and embarrassment in closed conference rooms. Most often they are created locally, though intended for release globally, with all words being from a single language – usually English.
Yet, like almost any part of data – be it addresses, names, measurements, or date and time systems – something deemed offensive to one person is as innocent as the name or place of residence of another.
Meet the blockers
An Xbox user had his account suspended because he lived in a city called Fort Gay in the USA, deemed offensive by Microsoft. Apart from commonly referring to a homosexual, Gay is a common given name or surname in the English-speaking world, where there are many streets and places named after those people.
Like Effin and Fort Gay, there are large numbers of place names which cause problems for their inhabitants in their online lives. The good burgers of Scunthorpe in England have a very trying time with web sites and spam filters, as do the exasperated inhabitants of Dildo in Newfoundland, Canada; Climax in Colorado; Intercourse in Pennsylvania; Condom in France and Fucking in Austria.
The first Qut is the deepest
But this is also certainly not an issue which only relates to the English language. The town of Kut in Iraq is spelt with a Q in the Dutch media because its English transliteration is considered obscene.
It’s understandable that companies wish to screen (and it should be screening, not auto-blocking) ostensibly offensive material before it reaches their customers, but in all cases it needs to be done in a refined way, taking account of linguistic, geographical and cultural differences.
Systems need to know about a customer’s cultural background, country of residence and linguistic knowledge, and be supported by extensive reference tables of personal names, place names and address components.
Nanny walls, such as those employed by Facebook and Microsoft in the examples above, can get in the way of real business, as well as being fodder for bad publicity.
Far from being a panacea, businesses need to think hard before blanket-banning terms. For the inhabitants of Effin, at least, it has not had the desired consequences.