Sep 14, 2018

What's in a Name, Scunthorpe Problem

A writer for SB Nation named Natalie Weiner posted a screenshot of a rejection form she received when she tried to sign up for a website. Her submission was rejected because a spam algorithm considered her last name "offensive." After she posted about this, hundreds of other people with similarly "offensive" last names sounded off about how they had experienced similar issues.

This phenomenon is so widespread that it has a name among computer scientists. It is called the Scunthorpe problem and it has been a scourge of the internet since the beginning. The name began after
an incident in 1996 when AOL's dirty-word filter prevented residents of several English towns and counties, among them Scunthorpe, Penistone, Lightwater and Middlesex — from creating accounts with AOL because it matched strings within the town names to "banned" words. If you look close, you will find the letters that seemingly make up the words.

One reason the problem has yet to be solved is because creating effective obscenity filters depends on the filter's ability to understand a word in context. Despite advances in artificial intelligence, this is something that even the most advanced machine-learning algorithms still struggle with. Ah, English is an amazing language that computers still cannot decipher.