Langa Letter: Silent Censorship - InformationWeek

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3/26/2002
10:02 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Silent Censorship

Beware this column! No, there's nothing scandalous in Fred Langa's advice, although some poorly-made E-mail and content filters would think so.

Hello. My name is Fred, and I am a purveyor of salacious E-mails. At least, that's what a number of commercial E-mail content filters believe.

Don't laugh. Those same content filters probably think some of your E-mails contain offensive content, too, even if you've never written anything remotely offensive or racy. If your business or Internet service provider has installed a filter to "protect" you from inappropriate content, then--odds are--the filter also is blocking some nontrivial percentage of totally legitimate, 100% benign E-mail messages from entering or leaving your mailbox.

The filters, operating by their own rules and logic, are probably blocking or discarding some of your outbound messages before they ever reach their destination. Sometimes you'll get a "bounce back" message, but all too often, you won't even know that your mail was undelivered.

Your inbound E-mail probably also is affected. Again, this may happen without ever making you aware that some of your mail is being intercepted and destroyed.

I've learned all this from painful experience. You see, this column is sent out in several versions and formats, including by E-mail. The column never contains anything lewd or obscene. But almost every time I send out a column by E-mail, I get a significant number of bounce-back messages from hyperactive content filters that think they've spotted something nasty in the text.

For example, here's an actual bounce-back note generated by a recent column. The note is unedited, except that I've replaced one critical vowel--a "u"--with an asterisk:

-- -- -- ---
Subject: Content Warning from MailScan to Mail-Sender!
Content-Type: multipart/mixed; boundary="MailScanBoundary0"
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit
X-MDaemon-Deliver-To: [email protected]

The following E-mail you sent was not delivered to the intended recipients as it had restricted contents in it!
The restricted content present was "C*m".

Action taken: The E-mail was Quarantined.
The Mail came from: [email protected]
-- -- -- ---

Of course, my mailing didn't contain that three-letter word. Rather, I had used the words "circumstances" and "cumulative," both of which innocently contain the forbidden three-letter sequence. That was enough to trigger the content filters. I've gotten other bounce-backs from content filters that won't accept the word "assume" because of the word's first three letters.

Think about that for a second. For this kind of content filter, an E-mail will be flagged as inappropriate, and won't be delivered, if it contains a supposedly offensive word even as an innocent substring embedded within another totally valid, inoffensive word. We're talking about a huge chunk of the English language here: thousands upon thousands of totally legitimate words! It doesn't matter how bland or innocent the usage is, nor does it matter how important the E-mail might be to either the sender or recipient. The mail is simply trashed. Duh!

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