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 he’d 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

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