Strawberries and Teabags

David Cameron wants to block certain "pornographic" search terms. He joins a long list of MPs who simply don't understand what they're talking about - like Claire Perry, Andy Burnham, and Helen Goodman.

I've talked before about my time working as an "Adult Material Classifier" for Vodafone UK. In short, my team and I used to watch pornographic videos and classify whether they were suitable for inclusion on Vodafone live.

There were the usual limitations (no more than two participants, all over 18 etc) we also had a list of banned words.

It contained the usual sexual and racial slang which was verboten - as well as strawberry and teabag.

Strawberry and Teabag

I had obviously lead a very sheltered life. I had no idea that "to teabag" was a thing. Nor that one could "procure a strawberry" to defile. But, you can, and people do.

I can understand that David Cameron wants people not to be able to search for "obvious" search terms - but how do you block ambiguous terms? It's not hard to imagine to sort of depraved search query which would produce this image:
Wet Pussy
As people see what is being filtered, it's fairly easy to switch to a slang which has no "official" meaning. In China, the Government regularly censor discussion about the massacre at Tienanmen Square. Forbidden from mentioning the date of June 4th, locals instead refer to May 35th.

So, how does any search engine filter out "innocent" terms which may lead to "illegal" images?

I'll leave you with a quote from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in the Global Times (emphasis added):

Web regulation in public's best interest

Many countries are trying to regulate their Internet services. Under pressure from public opinion, many well-known websites are becoming more self-disciplined. For example, Facebook has started to provide training for its website regulators to help identify and delete inappropriate remarks. In Turkey, where chaos and turmoil are running rampant, the Turkish government criticized social media as the top threat. Similar denouncements have also been heard from the British Parliament.

What exalted company our wise and infallible government are keeping.

Pixellated Teabags

9 thoughts on “Strawberries and Teabags

  1. Spot on, but I think the implications of Cameron's plans are much more dangerous than they're being given credit for. The question isn't how the search engines will prevent people who want to find illegal or unsavoury images from using innocent terms to find them - it's blatantly obvious that they won't be able to.

    Far more important is how the search engines will filter out adult and illegal content when people are genuinely just searching for teabags.

    Right now, children and the rest of us are more protected from happening across illegal content than the media would have us think precisely because the search engines can use the absence of offensive/obvious terms in my query (and the text of pages I've visited in the past) to guess that I'm probably after information on tea.

    As soon as those terms are blocked, and the darker parts of the internet start to focus their search engine optimisation onto everyday terms, it's far more likely that we'll all come across content we didn't want to see.

    A nudge and a wink might work for buying magazines from under the counter in Soho, but how is Google supposed to tell the difference between an adult searching for "Earl Grey pictures" for titillation, and a 6 year old whose teacher had no idea their school research project could go so wrong...

  2. says:

    Ha I remember the days I worked for News Int doing SMS services for TV,Print and Radio, we had an obscenity filter, but people from Scunthorpe seemed to get moderated ... Ahem ...

  3. "David Cameron wants to block certain "pornographic" search terms."

    It's unfortunate that David Cameron's messages were mangled up by journalists and bloggers. I'm afraid your blog is no exception. But I'm not surprised because of the way the Government's messages were all delivered at the same time.

    David Cameron has never to my knowledge, advocated the blocking of porn keywords. There are different initiatives here. Firstly, he wants to enforce ISPs to automatically filter pornography in homes. And completely separate to porn blocking, he wants to force Google and Bing to block specific keywords from a "blacklist". The blacklist to which he refers is actually a list of key phrases that are used by people who purposely search for websites that contain images and videos of children being exploited. This is not a list of porn keywords as you suggest in your post.

    As I wrote on today, keyword blocking doesn't work but when Cameron says "obvious" terms, he's not referring to anything that you have hinted at here. These are terms not known to you or your team at Vodafone. These are terms known only to experts in the field of combating online child exploitation. So, I'm afraid your blog mixed up the two initiatives into one.

    1. Hi Paul,

      You say Cameron has never advocated the blocking of porn keywords, he merely wants to block specific words from a blacklist. You perhaps can understand my level of confusion.

      Without wanting to get into a pissing contest, the "naughty words and phrases" list I saw was generated by VGT and CEOP. It contained numerous phrases (which I'm not daft enough to list here) which struck us as very odd. When we questioned the people who provided them, we were told in no uncertain terms that they were the slang used by criminals to avoid traditional filters.

      Of course, once a month new terms were added because the slang kept changing. The experts know that the criminals know the experts know and it becomes an unending cat-and-mouse game.

      Finally, who chooses this blacklist and who supervises it? It's simply bad civic hygiene to create a system which can be used to block me for searching for "George Osborne Natalie Rowe" images.


  4. @Andrew There is a blacklist of key phrases that can be blocked and guaranteed not to block innocent websites. We have reported websites to IWF and NCMEC. It's not as accessible as the Mail might have everyone believe. But it's more accessible than you and the general public thinks.

  5. Terence, you didn't refer to the CEOP list in your post. You referred to "pornography" right from the start, setting the tone of the conversation to be about XXX content and not illegal content. CEOP doesn't distribute a list either - that's IWF.

    When David Cameron refers to a keyword "blacklist that's obvious", he's not referring to the porn keyword list that you talk about in the post. He's referring to the IWF list. And, I hope he's not referring to the entire list, but a small sub-set list. Otherwise we would face the same problem that you talk about.

    There are key phrases that should not return any results - it doesn't take much imagination to think about what they should be. And, as for the slang, I don't think anything that could have a double meaning should be blocked. They must also think about how anything they look at, translates into other languages. It took us more than 18 months to tweak our rules and keyword list - and it's a constant cycle of improvement.

    As for your last question, I'm sad to say that I haven't witnessed anyone qualified to make such judgement. I can think of a handful of people I would pull together to evaluate the list and then shortlist what could be implemented - including me 🙂

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