Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Futility of Censoring Online Chat

Online Virtual Worlds are semi-mainstream now, with World of Warcraft, Club Penguin, IMVU, Sony's Home, and Second Life all relatively well-known by a large chunk of the population.  But they all have their roots in MUDs (Multi-User Domain), MOOs (MUD, Object-Oriented) and BBS (Bulletin Board System) chat rooms that originated more than 20 years ago.  These text-based virtual worlds were run on university networks, accessible almost entirely by college students who happened to have computer access, a rarity at that time.  The basic features of today's Instant Message clients (ICQ, AIM, MSN, Jabber, and Yahoo!), and every chat feature inside online games and website assistant windows are descendants of these proto-Chat systems.

Somewhere back in the mid-1990s, Chat met the World-Wide Web.  Companies like iChat (not the Apple webcam software) were selling chatting plugins for the fledgling web site industry.   Yahoo's own chat system used iChat's plugin originally before it developed Yahoo! Instant Messenger.  I recall going to iChat's booth at a Linux Conference where a representative from some large corporate site was asking a product specialist a question along these lines:

Corporate Representative: "How do we make certain that users don't curse and only talk about our products?"
Product Specialist: "Ummm... You can't."

Non-technical people in boardrooms have always come up with the same seemingly obvious solution: "Can't we just make a big list of bad words and filter them out?" The answer, it turns out, and always will be NO*.

In the mid-1980's, a pair of programmers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer developed a 2-D graphical virtual world called Habitat, that ran on the Commodore 64 home computer. Since then they've been behind many online worlds.   Whenever there's a corporate backer for one of their projects (such as Disney, for their ToonTown virtual world for kids), they encounter (just like the one I encountered) the fundamental assumption that censorship is possible.

On their website, Habitat Chronicles, Randy Farmer blogged about how even their best laid censorship filter plans can be bested by a clever (and naughty) teenager:
"We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world."
"We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes hed created the following sentence:
I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.
Alas, for better or for worse, communication finds a way.  It's built from finite materials combined in infinite ways.  So long as there are clever people, someone will find some way to say something you (or other players) don't like through your corporate playground.

You hear that, China?  (AT & T?)

* That is, without having an impossibly expensive (and potentially corruptible) army of workers monitoring every conversation.

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posted by Brian at 3:53 PM 0 comments links to this post

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Our Potential VP Sarah Palin is a Book Banner?

I can't think of many things more unpatriotic than banning books in a country that prizes free speech. Libraries are not in the business of catering to preference; they are there to allow access to that very free speech we protect.

And yet, Republican John McCain has picked a doosy of a V.P. Apart from her obvious political abuses (like having a brother-in-law fired using her political power), her religious beliefs include censorship:
[...] as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.
Whether you're Republican or pro-McCain, I hope you realize what a dangerous person this would be as President (should McCain die). If you really want to put our "country first" as the battle-cry goes, elect someone who does not abuse power, who protects the First Amendment.

via TIME magazine.

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posted by Brian at 1:14 PM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, October 29, 2007

"I Want a Monster" - Banned Sesame Street sketch


I've known this song since I was maybe 5 or 6 when I got the Sesame Street LP "Monsters!" This album has been reissued by Sony on CD in 1996 but WITHOUT this song. The R & B group EnVogue did a cover of this song but with lyrics changed.

Original:

If I make friends with a friendly monster
I'd let him bounce me on his knee
I'd let him do whatever he wants to
'specially if he's bigger than me.

New:

If I make friends with a friendly monster,
I'd be the best that a friend could be.
I'd let him do whatever he wants to
And he'd always belong to me.
It was taken off rotation on Sesame Street in 1984 after a mom complained. Other classic SS sketches have been removed too due to a complaint, like the Don Music sketches where he bangs his head against his piano when frustrated.

(Interestingly, the person who uploaded this onto Youtube had to combine a Dutch-dubbed version with the original album version. At home I found that I have a Spanish-dubbed version and was considering doing the same thing.)

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posted by Brian at 5:43 PM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, January 28, 2005

Homophobic Education Secretary, anyone?



Bush's new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is on a tirade against PBS (which relies on government funds like Ready-To-Learn) for producing an episode of Postcards from Buster about sugar and where it comes from. Why is this a big deal, you ask? Because Buster (the bunny) encounters two lesbian couples who produce sugar & maple syrup in Vermont (where same-sex unions are legal). Margaret does not want her children watching this lifestyle in the intimate medium of television, and is demanding PBS give back the funds it used.

Margaret, with all due respect, resign from your post. It's not your job to keep kids from seeing an episode about sugar production just because the people interviewed happen to have a lifestyle you don't agree with. The show is about sugar production, not lesbian sex...

Shame on you, PBS, for cowering to her.

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posted by Brian at 8:42 AM 0 comments links to this post