Apple’s SMS Censorship Technology

By: Alden Hinds

Cell phones have propagated throughout the populace to become an essential device for communication. As their popularity and functionality has increased, users have abandoned other technologies, and have established a high level of dependency upon cell phones to maintain and establish human interactions. According to data released by the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, the average cell phone user produces 591 text messages a month. While the majority of these messages are normal communications, some of these messages may contain inappropriate or explicit material for minors.

On October 12th, 2010, Apple was awarded a U.S. patent for technology that censors text messages. In the past, message content was censored in two ways. The first method was to prohibit all messages to unauthorized individuals. Although this method limits interactions with potential sources of inappropriate material, message content to authorized individuals was unrestricted. The second method, cross checked all messages with a list of words, and prohibited inappropriate words from being transmitted. The main issue emanating from this form of censorship is that the technology allows texting shorthand i.e. “wtf” or “dtf.”

Apple’s technology avoids the flaws of past censorship methods by filtering messages according to the maturity of the user. This customized approach allows parents to use objective criteria such as age and grade level to filter message content to an appropriate level. It also enables parents to set enforceable criteria for a user to continue text messaging i.e. appropriate grammar and the use foreign words. Unlike the aforementioned censorship methods, Apple claims its technology can identify shorthand and filter content based upon its actual level of offensiveness.

In the past few years, the media has been flooded with stories about teenagers suffering serious legal consequences as a result of sexting. Some individuals have predicted that this technology will protect youths by inhibiting its occurrence. However, these individuals fail to recognize that this technology is unable to block the transmission of explicit images, which is the jurisdictional source of child pornography prosecutions. This technology may not be enough to curb the legal ramifications of sexting, but it does give parents a more effective tool to reduce text message use and exposure to typed offense material.

Apple’s approved patent for “Text-based communication control for personal communication device” can be seen here: http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=7814163.PN.&OS=PN/7814163&RS=PN/7814163

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