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Miss Manners Is Watching, Blindly
By Miriam Axel-Lute

Along with trying to keep out viruses and spam, workplaces are also going after “bad words”

“I know you wouldn’t send me anything inappropriate.” Perhaps the acquaintance I was e-mailing with didn’t know me that well to state that so confidently, but at least in this case she was right. I had written a brief and completely innocuous message about some dance events.

But, of course, she didn’t know that, because my message to her had been bounced. Her workplace, which shall remain nameless (for her sake), had refused to deliver my mail because it violated their incoming-mail policy on “racial discrimination.”

Leaving aside the fact that I’m pretty sure they meant “racially or ethnically derogatory language” (words don’t discriminate, people discriminate), I was pretty flummoxed as to why my message had been bounced. Racial slurs are not something I make a practice of using, and I knew there wasn’t anything remotely resembling one in my message.

I re-sent the message to her home address and let it go. Then, a few weeks later (after successfully sending her other messages at work), it happened again, this time to a one-line message that contained nothing more loaded than “pick” and “restaurant”—in other words, nothing at all loaded.

Being obsessive about these things, it finally occurred to me to scan the text of the messages I was replying to, which were quoted at the bottom of my messages. Bingo! Both contained references to doo-wop music.

For those of you my age and younger who are scratching your heads, “Wop” happens to also be a derogatory term for Italians, probably originating from Spain from a time a little more than a hundred years ago, when they had experienced a large influx of migrant farm workers from Italy.

For those of you who were keeping score on the implications for the scanning process, yes, the fact that the offending word was in her text, not mine, means that her workplace was scanning incoming messages for troublesome language, but not outgoing messages. So much for the ever-reliable “liability” excuse.

Leashing the potential nastiness of the Internet is big business these days. When it comes to filtering e-mail, much attention is focused on the legitimate and challenging goals of catching viruses and reducing unwanted spam. Of course even the most sophisticated spam filters, which evaluate dozens of factors, let some spam through and catch some messages recipients actually wanted. (Imagine the plight of sex educators, for example, trying to communicate with colleges about their offerings. I know of some who have said they might go back to faxing.)

But still, Bennett Haselton of Peace Fire, a group that “represents the interests of people under 18 in the debate over freedom of speech on the Internet,” says that though Web censorware often does, so far no spam filter would block an e-mail message merely for the presence of profanity (though possibly for a mention of a spam-related Web site).

Compared to the challenge of identifying spam, adding a feature where a company’s IT people can make their own list of words they don’t like has got to seem like a programming piece of cake. And so, just such a feature is made available as part of corporate network security packages. Such scanning can have a legitimate business use: Some law or financial firms keep a watch on outgoing mail for any phrases that might suggest certain kinds of fraud, or to add customized disclaimers.

But other uses are just broadly paternalistic. Christine Burling, a spokeswoman for New York state’s Office of General Services, which bounces e-mail containing profanity or terms that are racially or sexually “discriminatory,” explains the agency’s rationale thusly: “E-mail is supposed to be used for business purposes only, and I don’t see why anyone should be using profanity or that type of kind of language in their e-mail.” OGS keeps its own list of objectionable words, and updates it as new slang arises or words develop new and unsavory uses, says Burling. And if someone knows they missed an important work-related e-mail message due to a false positive, well, the IT department will still have it for a while and could retrieve it.

OGS is certainly not alone in taking this approach. And in the context of the far more worrying spread of public libraries, schools, and entire governments in the Middle East applying even more aggressive and paternalistic content filters to limit what the public, as opposed to a workforce, can view on the Web, it might not be something to get too worked up about.

But the employers sitting in a back room generating lists of bad words in the abstract are not all that different those pushing SmartFilter or the Communications Decency Act [“Is the Bible Belt Your ‘Local Community’?” Newsfront, March 30]. Threatened by the scope of new information sources, they are wielding clumsy responses that don’t actually address their stated problem (personal use of e-mail at work, or “protecting children,” respectively) but cause a good deal of collateral damage along the way.

It doesn’t take a lot of work to imagine legitimate e-mail messages to state agencies or large corporations that would run afoul of most abstract lists of naughty words. What about a complaint that an employee cursed someone out, or used a racial slur? What if an agency were sponsoring a doo-wop concert? Or sending out a public health advisory about lice that included the instruction “Towel head dry after application of medicated shampoo”? Or supporting the United Negro College Fund?

Flat-out bans on certain words are just as ridiculous now as they were in 1994 when some dutiful copy-editor in Illinois ran the headline “Atomic Bombers Criticize Enola Homosexual Exhibit.” Except in the wonderful world of e-mail scanning, we can’t even respond by saying we ought to have done a better job teaching the history of World War II.

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