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Protecting against knowledge

by Scott Bradner

If you have a sensitive nature you should not read this column. According to the manager of the Internet gateway at a large international company it contains a word that is "abusive."

I'm managing an IETF mailing list ( looking into the question of what the IETF should do if we are faced with a request to add legal intercept (wiretapping) functions to IETF protocols. As manager I get sent copies of any messages concerning delivery problems the mailing list finds. The other day I received the following: "This message was rejected and non-delivered by our Internet Mail Gateway (this scans all incoming and outgoing Internet messages). The message was rejected because of abusive or offensive content. Please re-word the message and resend it."

I exchanged mail with the manager of the mail gateway at the site and after searching the mailing list archives determined that the rejection was because of this paragraph from someone who did not like the idea that the IETF might develop protocols with such features:

"If the Federales want to develop such an application, let them do it. I'm certainly not about to commit time and money developing an application and/or hardware interface that benefits THEM! Isn't that why they take 40% of my paycheck each week, so that they have money to piss away on stupid stuff like that?"

The gateway manager said: "We do a general check for abusive words, not a context search. If any abusive words are found the email is stopped either going out or incoming. Our users accept this limitation and are happy to remain with in it." Due to the outbound filter he had to type the offending word on 4 lines with one character each.

Since the IETF mailing list software automatically unsubscribes any entry which causes a bounce the subscriber at this company is no longer receiving postings from this list. The company policy has protected him from what they see as abuse as well as the important discussion taking place on the mailing list.

I can see why a company might want to filter language in outgoing mail that in one way or another might harm the company or its image. Simple word scans will not catch misstatements of fact that are the most likely to harm the company but flagging deeply offensive language is an understandable protection. But extending this to blocking incoming mail containing a word that 5 year old children use comfortably is more depressing than anything else.

This company demonstrates a mistrust of its employees that is impressive indeed. The image of happy employees, protected at work from the evils of the world by a paternalistic management which treats them like children is a very sad one to me.

disclaimer: The aim of Harvard is to get people to think so treating them like children would be counterproductive but the above lament is mine.