Why Web Filters Don’t Work: Penistone and the Scunthorpe Problem

Why Web Filters Don’t Work: Penistone and the Scunthorpe Problem

Parents: this video references very strong
language. You may want to watch it first to decide whether
it’s right for you and your children. This is the lovely South Yorkshire village
of Penistone. “Penistone.” Probably once meant ‘the village near the
hill’, but now it’s… well, it’s an unfortunate name.
And they know it. Penistone. And yes, it causes problems sometimes, whenever some programmer decides to just outright
ban certain words without thinking where else they might appear.
Suddenly, you’re not talking about Penistone, you’re talking about “P****tone”. And you might think, no programmer’s going
to be that careless, but it’s happened a lot. There are many incidents, throughout the history of the web, about people and towns with all sorts of unusual
names being filtered or rejected. It’s generally known as the Scunthorpe problem, but I figured it was better to film this in
Penistone because, first, the joke is so much less rude, and second, there’s really no reason for anyone ever to
go to Scunthorpe. Nope.
Nope, nope, nope, nope nope nope nope nope. These days, programmers generally use a more
lenient approach. We’ve learned that humans are creative. Endlessly
creative. Block words? We’ll add spaces or change one
letter to something that sounds similar. Try and filter those, you’ll have a lot of
trouble talking about ducks. Try and detect it based on
fancy statistical methods and we’ll constantly change
to switch around them. As for trying to block pictures or videos…
I mean, good luck. If you’d like to get around a web filter, just ask any classroom in any school. It only takes one person
to know how to evade it, and suddenly every one of their friends
does too. And all of their friends’ friends. We’re not just talking about swearing and
adult content here: internet users in China regularly use euphemisms
and subtle tricks to get around their country’s web and social
media censorship, like calling the heavily-censored anniversary
of the Tiananman Square protests “Internet Maintenance Day” as everything shut
down around them. China’s Great Firewall does work, to some
extent — but there’s a huge amount of collateral damage.
It overblocks. Other sites and words get swept up and
blocked too, and it takes enormous amounts of human support
to make it work. If you actually wanted to make an automatic
system that was even close to human levels — and let’s not forget,
humans are still fallible — that automated system would need to parse
not just language, but context. It would have to understand every cultural
reference, every innuendo that a human moderator could
possibly notice and block, and it would have to make judgments
on whether something’s safe, a bit dodgy, or completely over the line. It needs at least a basic theory of mind: the ability to judge what someone else’s reaction
will be to a word or situation. To make an effective internet filter, you
either need a human, or a computer that’s basically equivalent
to a human. I don’t think it’s impossible — but I think it’s a long way off. And if you have something that can understand
people that well, that can empathise, that can predict reactions and behaviour, you’ve got something a lot more
than a web filter. You might even have something that,
by some standards — like the old Turing Test — counts as a person. [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

100 thoughts on “Why Web Filters Don’t Work: Penistone and the Scunthorpe Problem

  1. I dint' know my Hometown (Lüneburg) is a partner city of Scunthorpe. Thanks Tom for unintentionally sharing this wisdom with me 🙂

  2. When I was a kid I used to chat with my buddy on a program with a way-overzealous swear filter. When we were talking about sending Word files to each other, it rendered it as do$#%ents.

  3. As someone who lives in South Yorkshire and has attempted the Impossible Quiz several times, I am definitely aware of this town's existence.

  4. can we just appreciate how any time a sign said "Penistone" in this video the camera operator would pan over to where it just said "Penis", paused for a moment, and then continued to reveal the rest of the sign

  5. The people in the middle ages had a sense of humour that was considerably more robust than today's delicate sensibilities.
    They had professional farters for parties.

  6. I go on a site that censors 'omg' and 'dirty ', and if there could possibly be a bad word in your username it won't show up.
    For example, someone named 'HunterofArtemis' complained about the filter blocking their name because it has 'fart' in it. It's a flawed system.

  7. Hey you twonk….. I live in Scunthorpe! Nah not really. I’m from Thorne 17 miles down the road. I can’t think of any reason for going there either. I don’t live in Thorne anymore. I live in a nice place.

  8. I think of this video when I talk to my friend Ms. Wank, who must use a different last name in order to have a Facebook account because their filters won’t allow her real one.

  9. Well there is this town nearby called Hell, which depending on the filter could straight up completely censor the town's name…

  10. I'm sorry, but I just cannot sympathize with that issue. It's nothing but embarrassing for someone to lack the sophistication to discern or acknowledge word origins. The whole "swear word" debate is a non-issue, proliferated by the banning itself and only weirdly prominent in English speaking cultures.

  11. But why do filters block segments of a word?? Acuntstable Grapist Twankropper are not words that need filtering… they arent actual swear words anyway. I don't see the issue tbh, just over zealous filters.

  12. Watching this video made me remember that my school web filter didn’t allowed me to search ‘tube’ but I could search up grenade, gun, and AK-47

  13. They should make an unironic term that translates to "government" so the government ironically blocks itself because they think it's naughty innuendo.

  14. It doesn't even require profanity and a computer for human stupidity to cause this. Fuckiwit yanks get pissy about 666 appearing in telephone numbers and on highway signs. And one town of inbred hicks made "heaven-o" their "official " greeting because they didn't want to say "hell".

  15. I find it really disappointing that Scunthorpe wasn't twinned with foreign towns with similar problems. Ditto Peniston.

  16. My friends and I kept the the proxy we used to evade the blocks a secret of the royal family practically, better no one but us knows and it doesn't get blocked than everyone knows and it does

  17. "There's generally no reason for anyone to ever go to Scunthorpe."
    Tom, you are my favourite Youtuber by a country mile. I live near Scunthorpe and I couldn't agree more.

  18. I remember from clash of clans some years ago that it blocked like everything that could contain something you could swear with. The Dutch word verbetering would be verbe* * * * * *

  19. way back in the day, on animal jams, I remember having issues talking about anything that has to do with holes (plus, the end song sounds like a song that often plays in civilisation V, when you're playing as Denmark (maybe others)

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