Apple's 'Anti-Sexting' Patent Is a Joke

Patents are like the green leafy vegetables of information technology -- vital to many companies' health, but they don't exactly make you line up at the dinner table with knife and fork in hand.

Apple patents, on the other hand, are more like hot fudge sundaes -- everybody crowds around the table with their spoons. And when the patents touch on the topic of sex, well, get out of the way if you don't want to get trampled.

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Yesterday, Apple received a patent for technology that allows it to read text messages before they're sent and censor or block them as needed. TechCrunch immediately described this as a patent on an "anti-sexting device" -- because the surest path to getting big Web traffic is to put the word "sexting" in a headline (you clicked on this story, didn't you?), despite the fact that "sexting" appears nowhere in the patent documents posted online. That was enough to incite the usual blogger stampede.

At first glance, this appears to be another weapon in Steve Jobs' somewhat selective anti-porn crusade -- you know, the one where the iPhone App Store bans images of semi-nude hotties found in hundreds of obscure apps, but allows similarly fleshy forms from Victoria's Secret, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy.

But it's really more cunning and capitalistic than that. The iPhone is already the uber-status symbol among the sub-18 set. If you're going to sell the thing teenagers covet most, you might as well make it more attractive to the people who'll end up paying for it -- i.e., the parents. The pitch that "our phones make your kids safer (as well as cooler)" beats the hell out of "it's time for a phone to save us from our phones."

The obvious questions, of course, are a) whether products based on this patent will ever see the light of an Apple "retina display," and ii) how they're likely to work in the field.

From the descriptions, it seems the filter can bleep out any terms you don't want appearing in the kids' texts. (Presumably, a corporation could use the same technology to keep sensitive information or the names of unreleased products from leaking out on employee iPhones.) It could block the message outright, substitute different words in place of the naughty ones, and/or alert parents their kids are up to no good. Apparently, it can even notify parents when their kids are using improper grammar in texts. (Cn U B-leeve that? Luzrs!)

From the patent description, you'd think Jobs and Co. are determined to make the practice of texting totally uncool. To wit:

"A parent can ....institute a condition to improve a child's grades. For example, the control application may require a user during specified time periods to send messages in a designated foreign language, to include certain designated vocabulary words, or to use proper designated spelling, designated grammar and designated punctuation and like designated language forms based on the user's defined skill level and/or designated language skill rating."

The problem with this scenario? Though they may not appear especially astute when operating large dangerous machines (like automobiles), teenagers are way smarter than us when it comes to manipulating small digital devices. Before you're done reading this paragraph, some teen has already invented a gaggle of new sexting acronyms you've never heard of. Even if you could keep up, some pimply genius will invent a way to hack/jailbreak the filter in such a way as to make you believe it's still working when it really isn't, and then post it on the InterWebs.

Also: The patent does not address the problem of kids texting naked pictures of themselves to each other, which is where prosecutors tend to get involved.

Here's a headline for you: Software that scans and filters text messages isn't new, folks. A half-dozen products already do this. You're reading about it now only because Apple is involved (though when Apple does something, it often becomes mainstream shortly thereafter). I haven't tried any of them, but I'm sure they're probably marginally better than no filter at all.

But why stop at dirty words? If Apple can control what's inside the texts you send or receive, what's to stop it from censoring, say, any mention of Android or Google Voice? Ladies and gentlemen, start your paranoia engines.

What will Apple try to patent next -- and where should it stop? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "This sexting message has been censored by Steve Jobs," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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