The Internet is full of filth. From “barely legal babes” to barely avoidable male enhancement spam, it seems there’s something risqué lurking around every corner. Yet, in an age where amateur action is more accessible than early American literature, some families are finding a surprising stance on obscenity: Their own names, they’re being told, are too vulgar for the Web.
What’s in a Name?
Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, let me introduce you to an unassuming little town in North Lincolnshire, England. It’s a place known for being the steel producing capital of the United Kingdom — but that’s not what this town is most famous for. This town’s claim to fame lies within its name. Welcome to Scunthorpe.
The name Scunthorpe — and, to be clear, the syllables pronounced are “scun” and “thorpe” — is believed to be derived from the Scandinavian term “Escumetorp.” That translates roughly to “farmstead belonging to Skuma.” As you can imagine, though, the etymology isn’t what made the name notorious.
Scunthorpe first entered the American vernacular back in the Internet’s infancy, around 1996. That’s when, legend has it, AOL’s automated filtering system kept Scunthorpians from registering for accounts because of a certain four letters found within their town’s name. Even as recently as 2004, reports indicate services like Google’s SafeSearch were still flagging Web sites that contained the term.
All those episodes led to the christening of the “Scunthorpe Problem,” or the inadvertent blocking of a name because of a curse word living within its letters. It’s something residents of the South Yorkshire town Penistone know well, as do families living in England’s less blatantly blasphemous village of Lightwater. (Look carefully.)
So what’s in a name? A lot, it would seem, especially in the automated matrix of the Information Age. But the Scunthorpe Problem isn’t limited to geographic locations. Get ready to meet a retired radiologist who found his life shifting from X-rays to accusations of being X-rated.
Herman Libshitz is used to getting, uh, crap about his name. The doctor, raised in Philadelphia and now living in Chestertown, Md., learned early on he’d have to defend his family’s honor.
“When you’re named Libshitz, you expect problems with your name,” he says. “Can you imagine what a drill sergeant did with Libshitz?”
Still, Libshitz’s foray into cyberspace proved more irksome than the typical teasing he’d experienced in his younger years. It started around 1998, when he and his wife bought a computer and tried to sign up for an AOL account.
“AOL told me my name was insulting and offensive,” he remembers. “They wouldn’t give me an e-mail address.”
Libshitz fought that battle, and he won. But that was only the beginning. Fast-forward to July of 2008. Libshitz and his wife decided to upgrade their home from dial-up to high-speed Internet access. They logged on to Verizon’s Web site — only to find, once again, their name wouldn’t be accepted.
“Verizon could use my name in the phonebook, they could use my name to bill me. Lord knows they cash my checks with my name on it,” Libshitz says. “But somehow as an e-mail address, it wasn’t good. That offended me. I told them it was fine when Uncle Sam wanted me to be in the military and I proudly served.”
Four phone calls and a rotating lineup of unseen supervisors proved insufficient to solve Libshitz’s issue. Finally, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer was able to get through to someone on the doctor’s behalf and get his problem resolved.
“They condescended to let me use my own name as an email address. Wasn’t that gracious?” he says.
What happened to Herman Libshitz isn’t entirely uncommon. There are more than 150 families with variations of the name listed in New York City alone, and it’s far from the only surname suffering from Scunthorpe’s syndrome. Just ask Craig Cockburn, a guy who’s resorted to replacing the “o” in his last name with a zero to get around filters. And it’s not just incidental profanity getting the kibosh, either. Some providers reportedly banned names containing the word “Allah” — take, for example, “Callahan” — until just a couple of years ago.
When it comes to getting answers, though, the major national companies seem largely reluctant to discuss their policies and what legitimately named families can do. I did a little digging and discovered someone named “Lipshitz” could create an account with Microsoft’s Hotmail or Yahoo Mail without any trouble. Try AOL Mail, Comcast, Gmail, or Verizon, though, and a Lipshitz will get turned away. (Mr. Cockburn, in a similar test, didn’t fare much better.)
Of those four nay-saying providers, only half were up-front in discussing their policies. Verizon’s spokesperson explained that “if the language is objectionable and obvious,” the network won’t “permit it to be used in an e-mail account address.” He did, however, say anyone with a valid name-based reason to use that language in an address could contact Verizon’s staff and request an exception.
AOL’s spokesperson said filters there do block certain “strings of words and particular terms,” including any phrases deemed to be “sexually explicit or vulgar.” She also emphasized that users with specific problems can make individual requests.
Comcast did not respond to our request for comment. When I went onto its Web site chat interface as a potential customer, however, and asked a representative about creating an account with the name “Lipshitz,” I was told the system would block it. “I am sorry, the same with other providers, username (sic) with profanity words are not allowed by the server,” a representative informed me.
As for Gmail, a spokesperson responded by sending me two basic excerpts from the service’s online FAQ — one explaining that a username may be unavailable to “prevent spam or abuse,” and another explaining why all usernames must contain at least six letters. When I tried to request specifics and ask about the best courses of action for those with blocked names, the spokesperson stopped responding to my calls and e-mails.
(AT&T, by the way, did not respond to multiple requests for information. I attempted to logon to its online chat interface as a customer, but its representatives told me I would have to complete the signup process before I could see if any specific username would be accepted.)
For what it’s worth, the Webmail providers are split when it comes to blocking George Carlin’s infamous “seven dirty words.” We’ve already covered the one most familiar to Dr. Libshitz. Four of the other entries — the two most obviously vulgar four-letter words and the two multisyllable selections — are banned at AOL Mail, Google, Hotmail, and Yahoo. The two remaining words on Carlin’s list, curiously enough, are permitted at all four Webmail providers.
Your Name, Not Your Right
So where does all of this leave the Libshitzes, Lipshitzes, and Cockburns of the world? Nine times out of 10, they may just be out of luck.
“As a basic tenet of American law, you do not necessarily have a right to use your name,” explains Theodore Claypoole, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and consumer data treatment with Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge, and Rice.
Claypoole likens the situation to vanity license plates. States have certain restrictions on what words can and cannot be used. E-mail, he says, is no different.
“You may have a right to use your name to describe you. You do not have the right to use your name on anything that you do,” he says.
For Herman Libshitz, the issue is less about legality and more about moral standards — standards he believes are being upheld inconsistently.
“I think it’s hypocrisy that they’re ‘saving us from profanity’ by not letting people use their surnames,” he says. “I mean, these are the same providers that permit all sorts of pornography to go over their lines. If that’s not hypocrisy, I don’t know what is.”
For now, it seems, there is no simple answer. Libshitz managed to solve his own personal struggle, but his victory hasn’t reached far. Future generations are bound to face similar burdens, fighting obscenity filters and working to justify a single syllable — working, one might say, to avoid becoming virtual citizens of an unassuming little town in North Lincolnshire.