Apple Awarded ‘Anti-Sexting’ Patent

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—A patent request submitted by Apple to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2008 has been approved. Some are calling it the “anti-sexting” patent. Others are calling it much ado about nothing. In brief, the patent covers “text-based communication control for personal communication device[s].”

According to the patent application, the invention, which is referred to as a “control application” throughout, was devised to address a very specific problem the patent inventors, Matthew and Michael Lee of San Jose, California, believe is inherent in text-based communications; specifically, that “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. Also, because electronic text-based messaging often can be informal, some users may draft messages that are grammatically incorrect.”

The solution, especially for parental control, “is to limit the access points that a user can have. For example, a parent could prevent a child user from accessing specific websites, or limit the user to communicating electronically with a limited set of individuals or e-mail addresses. Such solutions, however, still do not address the content of the communications that the child user has with the permitted communicators.”

Now we get to the intended purpose of the invention, which is to control the actual content.

“One way that systems can be used to attempt to control the content that a user can view is to pass all of the communications through a dictionary which prevents a given set of words from being communicated,” reads the patent application. “For example, many such dictionaries, if selected, typically prevent the user from sending or receiving curse words. One problem with this potential solution is that the dictionaries are often fixed. Another potential problem with such dictionaries is that they do not have the ability to prevent the use of non-standard forms of words from being communicated, such as those types of words that are often communicated via text messaging (such as, for example, text messaging ‘LOL’ instead of typing out the full text of ‘lots of luck’).”

The solution is described thusly: “The invention, in various embodiments, addresses deficiencies in existing attempts at solutions by providing systems, methods and devices that enable an administrator to control the text-based communications of a user of a text-based communications device through an administrative mode of an intelligent text-based communication control unit or application. The text-based communication control application filters incoming and/or outgoing text-based communications based on administrator-defined criteria.”

The summary of the patent then provides several “embodiments,” including as a parental control application, as “an instructional tool or study aid where the administrator sets one or more modes,” or “applying ratings to the message control conditions.”

In the end, it all comes down to the control of text-based content.

According to ZDNet, “This is yet another move towards a ‘family friendly’ Apple, with all sexually explicit applications removed from the App store, after publically [criticizing] the adult industry earlier this year during the iPad launch.”

The writer, Zach Whittaker, just hopes “there’s a way to turn it off.”

Over at ValleyWag, Max Reed thinks the patent approval signals pretty much zilch, and will be quickly circumvented by the presumed target.

“Luckily, since tweens are incredibly stupid and unmotivated,” he wrote, “they'll never figure out ways to get around content-blocking, like using different words, or, say, picking up the phone and calling their sext-objects.”

Of course, just because Apple claims that the purpose of its new “invention” is to provide parents with a new tool by which to control their teens' speech does not mean that it will be used by parents only, or thath the company will not try to extend it beyond text-based communication. Indeed, is it not even possible that Steve Jobs has far more up his sleeve here than just parental control?