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An example of the Scunthorpe problem
The Scunthorpe problem is the blocking of websites, e-mails, forum posts or search results by a spam filter or search engine because their text contains a string of letters that appear to have an obscene or 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 for computers at present. As a result, broad blocking rules may result in false positives affecting innocent phrases.
Origin and history
The problem was named after an incident in 1996 in which AOL's profanity filter prevented residents of the town of Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, England from creating accounts with AOL, because the town's name contains the substring "cunt".
Years later, Google's opt-in SafeSearch filters apparently made the same mistake, preventing residents from searching for local businesses that included Scunthorpe in their names.
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); "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 of the name of a pharmaceutical, that was often the subject line used on spam or scam emails, being cialis, occurring within his job title of software specialist. He was told by Hotmail to spell his name C0ckburn (with a zero instead of the letter "o"); Hotmail later reversed the ban. In 2010 he had a similar problem registering on the BBC site where again the first four characters of his surname caused a problem for the content filter.
In February 2006, Linda Callahan, a resident of Ashfield, Massachusetts, 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.
In July 2008, Dr. Herman I. Libshitz could not register an e-mail address containing his name from 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.
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 also impacted them as well. Names of those replying included Ben Schmuck (last name is a Yiddish term of disparagement), and Arun Dikshit (last name is Sanskrit for one who teaches or provides knowledge, containing the substring shit). Articles covering this stated that it was a common and extremely difficult technical problem for which no robust solution was currently available.
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."
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 Maori, and in the Maori language "wh" is most commonly pronounced as "f". The town subsequently put the name on the filter's whitelist.
In July 2011, web searches in China on the name Jiang were blocked following claims on the Sina Weibo microblogging site that former president Jiang Zemin had died. Since the word "Jiang" meaning "river" is written with the same Chinese character (?), searches related to rivers including the Yangtze (Cháng Ji?ng) produced the message "According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results of this search cannot be displayed."
In February 2018, web searches on Google's shopping platform were blocked for items such as glue guns, Guns N' Roses, and Burgundy after Google hastily patched their search system that was rampantly displaying results for weapons and accessories that violated Google's stated policies.
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. It also blocked e-mails sent in Welsh because it did not recognise the language.
In October 2004, it was reported that the Horniman Museum in London was failing to receive some of its e-mail because filters mistakenly decided that its name was a version of the words horny man.
Problems can occur with the words socialism, socialist, and specialist because they contain the substring Cialis, the brand name for an erectile dysfunction medication commonly advertised in spam e-mails. Blocking of the word specialist is liable to block emailed résumés and curricula vitae and other material including job descriptions.
In May 2006, Ray Kennedy from Manchester in the UK found that e-mails that he had written to his local council to complain about a planning application had been blocked as they contained the word erection when referring to a structure.
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. Publisher Deborah Morrison commented: "Back in 1920, The Beaver was a perfectly appropriate name. And while its other meaning [vagina] 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".
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.
Residents of Penistone in South Yorkshire have had e-mails blocked because the town's name includes the substring penis.
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".
Resumes of magna cum laude graduates 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 in English usage.
The word or string "ass" may be replaced by "butt", resulting in "clbuttic" for "classic" and "buttbuttinate" for "assassinate".
In November 2013, British Facebook temporarily blocked users for using the word faggot in reference to the dish.
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".
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".