Opening Statements

Apple App Aims to Squash Sexting

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If zealous prosecutors and Tiger Woods can’t stop sexting, maybe Steve Jobs can.

In October, Apple obtained a patent (US 7814163) for technology that serves as an anti-sexting control and an educational tool. Titled “Text-based communication control for personal communication device,” the patented technology allows iPhone administrators (read: parents) to block incoming or outgoing texts containing certain words. Objectionable content also may be removed from messages or the administrator could require that texts pass through a dictionary, preventing curse words or text-speak like LOL.

Apple’s patent suggests the technology also could work in reverse, as in requiring texts by a child learning Spanish to contain a set number of Spanish words. Traditional blockers fail to address the content of communications that children have with “permitted communicators,” Apple said in its patent application.

Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman says this technology bears a striking resemblance to easily defeated Internet filtering technologies developed and abandoned in the 1990s. While Apple’s technology covers texts instead of e-mail, that’s “not a meaningful difference,” says Goldman, who directs the High Tech Law Institute.

“I don’t immediately see how this patent provides any new insight into the commercial viability of filters as a pedagogical tool. Based solely on my cursory and incomplete review, I’m incredulous that this patent was issued.”

Even though Apple may never commercialize the technology, the high cost of patent litigation (around $5,000,000 to reach trial, Goldman says) means that innovators who may have experimented with similar technologies will be less inclined to do so for fear of a patent infringement lawsuit.

Apple—and its patent attorneys—did not respond to requests for comment.

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