We’ve known for some time that the sorts of automated filters that get applied to various internet-y things are flawed in the extreme. But of all the filters that annoy me the most, profanity filters are the worst. And, no, it’s not just because I use curse words like commas. Rather, it’s the combination of just how badly this is used, such as how Google thought for years that “bisexual” was a naughty word, along side how nefarious actors can block all sorts of non-profane language just by calling it profane. Add to all of this that a total lack of nuance for identifying so-called “naughty words” regularly causes perfectly non-profane content to be blocked or censored and this all begins to look like an exercise worth giving up.
For a great example of that last bit, we need only to look at a recent remote conference conducted by paleontologists that went awry due to a profanity filter.
Participants in a virtual paleontology session found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place last week, when a profanity filter prevented them from using certain words – such as bone, pubic, stream and, er, beaver – during an online conference.
“Words like ‘bone’, ‘pubic’, and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,” said Brigid Christison, a master’s student in biology attending the event, in an interview with Vice.
Why, yes, that is really stupid. If your profanity filter is filtering out words you need to use for your field, then your profanity filter sucks and should be done away with. And, really, are members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology really so sensitive that any profanity filter need be in place at all. These people are adults and can be trusted, not journalists for The New Yorker.
Now, much of the blame for this comes from the organizers of the event for some reason including a filter setup for typical business meetings.
“Apparently it came with a pre-packaged naughty-word filter. After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office, and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” an SVP member explained to Reddit users.
I’m not entirely sure why any of this is funny, to be honest. It’s just annoying. Especially, as the article notes, when there are some curious choices made in the stock filter as to what words to filter out as profane or not. “Wang” is filtered for instance, despite it being a common last name, but “Johnson,” which has the same slang meaning, is totally allowed.
Again, all of this is simply annoying and unnecessary. Trust adults to be adults and either not use profane words, or else be able to handle it if someone else occasionally does. These filters aren’t working.