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Someone has been blocking your alley on Saturday nights and you want something done about it. You’re tired of holding the line at the District’s citywide call center. So you go to the D.C. government’s home page, log on to the feedback section, and send a missive to email@example.com, asking why that son of a bitch doesn’t get towed.
The machinery of government hears you, and it sends back an e-mail. Subject: “Spam mail warning notification! (Sexual Discrimination).” The body of the message says, simply, “Content filter has detected a sensitive e-mail.”
The filter, which screens any messages sent to District officials on the dc.gov server, is sensitive to more than just the danger of sex discrimination. If you were to ask, instead, why the fuck the police haven’t towed the guy, your rejection letter would read, “Spam mail warning notification! (Dirty Words).”
The delicate sensibilities belong to software installed by the District’s Office of the Chief Technology
Officer (OCTO), which scans the subject line, sender, and text of e-mail messages for unsanitary content. Calvin Miller, OCTO’s director of Internet security, says that “a commercial off-the-shelf software package is used for word filtering.”
Though the rejection messages refer to all bounced mail as “spam,” the software is designed not only to block nuisance commercial messages but also to keep out obscene and derogatory content. Hence the rejection categories, which flag racial slurs as well as sexual and scatological terms.
At least, they flag some of them. According to Washington City Paper tests, “fuck” may be a no go, but “fucking” gets through. So do “roger,” “screw,” and “diddle.” The race filter blocks “nigger,” but “kike,” “spic,” and “honky” get by. The gender filter rejects “cunt” but not “twat.” “Faggot” is prohibited for being sexual discrimination, but “fag” is not.
OCTO does not directly set the standards, Miller says. “The software subscription maintains the word list for us,” he says.
Tony Bullock, spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, raves about the power of OCTO’s filtering. “My home computer is susceptible to constant offers to get a better mortgage or extend parts of my anatomy,” Bullock says. “But at work, it’s absolutely amazing, because nothing comes through.”
D.C. councilmembers, who get their mail via dccouncil.washington.dc.us, aren’t enjoying the same level of protection. On Feb. 11, for instance, the whole council was asked, “How Would You Like A MUCH BIGGER PENIS? Gain Up to 3-4 Inches!!”
“Either ‘penis’ isn’t a dirty word or the council doesn’t have a screener,” says John Ralls, executive assistant to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Evans spokesperson Sean Metcalf says he sees plenty of unrefined language. “I always see people cursing in our e-mails,” Metcalf says. “We get a lot of people who vent. You’re gonna see curse words.”
Bullock says the filter isn’t meant to bar constituents from using strong language toward the mayor. “We have no right to do that, any more than we can control whether people might be abusive on the telephone or in snail mail,” he says.
But the mayor’s spokesperson also admits that he doesn’t mind being spared the language sometimes. “It could be that profanity filter is catching some incoming e-mail,” Bullock concedes. “And good.” CP