The Scunthorpe Problem – When Profanity Filters Go Too Far

Scunthorpe Problem

The Naughty List

It’s no secret – the internet can be a pretty dirty place. Make a wrong click, and you might just be sent down a path of filth and vulgarity. Thankfully, the web is not all bad. If you prefer to keep things a bit more proper, there are plenty of other sites across the internet trying to serve up family-friendly fun (Sporcle, *cough cough*).

All web sites deal with obscenities a little differently. One of the most common methods of keeping things clean on the internet is through the use of profanity filters. At Sporcle, we call this our Naughty List, and it prevents users from posting obscene language around the site.

Profanity filters are generally a good thing, but they certainly are not perfect. For many sites, the line between what is decent and what is not can be tough to determine. Sometimes, things can go too far.

Welcome to the Scunthorpe problem.

What’s in a Name?

In North Lincolnshire, England, there exists a little town called Scunthorpe – pronounced ‘Scun-thorpe’. It is known as the steel-producing capital of the UK, but that is not necessarily what makes this place so special.

We have to go back to 1996, when the internet was still more or less just a baby. The poor citizens of Scunthorpe ran into an interesting issue when trying to sign-up on AOL. No one from the town could actually create an account because of AOL’s profanity filter, which was automatically blocking residents from doing so.

Look closely. Hidden within ‘Scunthorpe’ is a naughty word which caused the town name to be flagged as inappropriate. Confused residents of Scunthorpe were told by AOL customer support that for sign-in purposes, they should use the name Sconthorpe instead. Of course, that was a pretty lame attempt at a fix. Eventually, the town name would be removed from AOL’s blocked list, but the ordeal served to highlight a major drawback of automatic profanity filters going forward.

What makes this issue with Scunthorpe especially problematic is the fact that most people probably wouldn’t bat an eye at the sight of the town’s name. It isn’t until it starts showing up on sites as S****horpe, or just being blocked entirely, that people start to notice the dirty word. When harmless words like Scunthorpe are censored or blocked, it almost serves to highlight the bad word even more.

Other Cases Of The Scunthorpe Problem

The Scunthorpe problem wasn’t limited to just AOL. Back in 2004, Google ran into similar issues with their SafeSearch filter. Many innocent sites were filtered out of Google search results simply based on strings of letters in their domain names. Words like ‘sex’ and ‘girls’ could cause a site to be blocked, as was the case with Ohio electronics retailer, PartsExpress.com.

Sporcle also ran into the Scunthorpe problem a few years back. In our case, not only were we censoring incorrect words that contained strings of words from our Naughty List, but the code for determining a correct answer was flagging any answer that contained a naughty word as incorrect. You could probably imagine the frustration that would have caused users back then!

Today, the Scunthorpe problem still pops up from time to time around the web. Future generations of citizens from Penistone, Lightwater and Clitheroe (ironically, all in England as well) will continue to run into issues with internet profanity filters. Something tells us George Carlin would not approve.

Interested in Learning More?

Here are a few other fun examples of the Scunthorpe problem.  

  • In the months leading up to Super Bowl XXX, some web searches were being filtered because the Roman numeral for the game can also be used to identify porn.
  • Jeff Gold attempted to register a domain name for his mushroom website in 1998. The name he wanted, shitakemushrooms.com, was blocked by an InterNIC dirty word filter.
  • A Scottish man named Craig Cockburn reported he was unable to use his surname with Hotmail back in 2004. He was eventually able register with the name ‘C0ckburn’.
  • In 2006, a woman named Linda Callahan was prevented from creating an email address on Yahoo! because her name contained the word ‘allah’. Yahoo! later reversed the ban.
  • Dr. Herman Libshitz ran into issues in 2008 when trying to create a Verizon email address due to a particular string of letters in his last name.
  • In 2008, a filter on a news site run by the American Family Association changed all instances of ‘gay’ to ‘homosexual’ in an article originally written by the Associated Press. This was unfortunate for sprinter Tyson Gay, whose name was rendered to ‘Tyson Homosexual’ in the article. This also happened to basketball player Rudy Gay on the same website.
Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 146 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.