A patent application Apple (AAPL) filed in 2008 has been approved for technology that would allow users to censor text messages received on the iPhone.
The patent is a measure that basically seems geared toward allowing parents to control the content of what their children receive and send on their phones. It covers any kind of system or device for “enabling control” of text-based messages, including emails, and it also covers both incoming and outgoing messages.
PC World reported that it seems the patent is designed to combat “sexting,” the practice of sending explicit sexual text messages. Apple’s patent covers the ability for users to specify the blocked content in some fashion, and the technology could either block the whole message from being sent or received. Another method mentioned in the patent would have the objectionable content blocked within the message and letting the rest go through, either by some kind of explicit censorship, or just by chopping out the offending material from the text.
The patent also mentions that the criteria specifying what content to block might be available in a parental control setting. It immediately made me wonder how transparent Apple intends to make the censorship process: will kids under the umbrella of a “sexting filter” even know they’re not receiving explicit messages, or that their explicit messages and content are being blocked?
Thinking of the expansion of Internet lingo over the years, it seems the only way to make this potential censorship system work without kids just making up new words (“pwn” comes to mind, as does “pr0n,” as PC World pointed out) is to make it as opaque as possible: just don’t tell the kids you’re censoring what their saying. Of course, this then leads to a few ethical questions about the way parents treat their children and the idea of having your communication censored without your knowledge. Not Apple’s problem, I guess.
The patent also expands into some more arbitrary content controls that seem a little strange. PC World quotes the patent:
“These techniques also may be used, in accordance with instructional embodiments, to require the administered devices to include certain text in messages. These embodiments might, for example, require a certain number of Spanish words per day be included in emails for a child learning Spanish.”
That’s a bit creepy.
It’s important to point out that plenty of patents never go anywhere, and just because Apple has a patent on a texting censor that could force children to learn things (or receive/not receive messages with all kinds of different content) doesn’t mean it’ll ever amount to anything.
At the same time, if parental control is an issue that’s barring parents from buying iPhones for their kids, then Apple is actively looking for ways to solve that problem. Could kid-friendly iPhones be on the way? And if so, how much oversight is Apple planning to give parents?
From the looks of this patent, it could be quite a bit. Although, even an explicit text message filter still doesn’t have the capability to censor explicit photos and images of course.