Apple Targets Sexting With New Patent

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Apple’s (Stock Quote: AAPL) efforts to filter out objectionable content from the digital world took a big step forward this week with the approval of a patent for a smartphone feature that would allow the user (say, a parent) to regulate the way the device could be used.

Titled “Text-based communication control for personal communication device,” the patent is impressive in its scope. It includes settings that would block text messages containing any terms the user chooses to put on a “banned” list, a feature that would supposedly put an end to “sexting,” the racy practice sending of lewd messages among cell phones that is becoming popular among teens.

Apple explained the reasoning in its patent application, filed in January 2008: “One problem with text-based communications is that there is no way to monitor and control text communications to make them user appropriate. For example, users such as children may send or receive messages (intentionally or not) with parentally objectionable language.”

Efforts to stem sexting may seem futile since sexual and drug-related terminology changes constantly, especially among young people, and parents tend to be the last ones to know what their children’s slang actually means. But the patent describes one feature in which a text message cannot be sent unless its content passes the automatic spell check. Spelling the word “boobs” with numbers (“b00bs”) would therefore not work to override the filter.

The other major application of the new patent supports the device’s educational possibilities. A parent can set language and timing restrictions so that, for example, a text message must be sent every hour in a particular language and at a particular skill level in that language. In this way a student learning French will not be able to send personal messages until he or she has sent the required number of messages in proper French.

While parents would likely welcome a more sophisticated way to monitor or control what their children are doing with their phones, industry watchers are already citing the new patent as just another form of censorship.

Apple has courted plenty of controversy over its ad-hoc censorship of what it considers obscene content in its online app store. An app for a graphic novel based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” that contained an illustration of two men kissing was banned before later being allowed in, and while a Playboy app featuring nudity could not be sold there, a British tabloid app whose content regularly features a bare breast or two made it through.

Beyond objections to what many see as discrimination in (temporarily) disallowing an app that depicts homosexuality, consumers’ complaints have tended to focus on Apple’s lack of transparency in the process. After all, music with explicit lyrics have long been sold on the iTunes store. The company’s review process for the app store is not public knowledge, and its decisions sometimes seem to contradict themselves.

And with Apple now the largest tech company in the industry, many worry that the corporate giant should not be the final arbiter of what is and isn’t appropriate content. CEO Steve Jobs has always been clear about his objection to pornography, though, even going so far as to say in one notorious e-mail exchange with a Gawker staffer that the iPhone would offer the world “freedom from porn.”

Despite Apple’s habit of censoring certain apps only to reinstate them after sufficient public outcry, Jobs pretends to be unfazed by the public reaction to its decisions. In the same exchange he said, “users, developers, and publishers can do whatever they like – they don’t have to buy or develop or publish on iPads if they don’t want to.”

Regardless of whether or not Apple will eventually allow appropriately labeled “explicit” content on its app store, the ambiguity over its censorship policy has certainly not hurt its share price, which soared to an all-time high this week.

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