updated 06:10 pm EDT, Wed October 13, 2010
"Objectionable" content could be blocked
Apple has been granted a patent that extends the company's existing Parental Controls for iOS devices into the various text messaging and email apps that ship with those devices, allowing certain content to be filtered based on pre-defined criteria. Interestingly, the patent also covers the possibility of requiring, rather than blocking, certain words.
While most reports have focused on the potential use of the technology to help parents restrict the use of sexually-explicit or profanity-laden messages (commonly referred to as "sexting"), the patent itself refers only to methods of dealing with messages sent or received that contain "objectionable" content (as defined by the administrator/parent). Methods that are covered in the patent include refusing to receive or transmit messages that contain restricted content, or "scrubbing" the off-limits words from the message.
Methods of determining what is "objectionable" content include a pre-defined list created by parents, or a more automatic system based on the age or grade level of the user. Apple also discusses a "rating" system not unlike those seen in TV shows and movies to set guidelines for age-appropriate content. Parents/administrators could choose an option to receive an alert themselves if messages with restricted content are sent or received.
Another use of the technology, mentioned prominently in the patent but less so in media coverage, is the inverse use of a "whitelist" of approved words or phrases, for example to build vocabulary or grammar skills for students, or to require that outgoing communications contain a certain amount of content in a different language -- helpful to people trying to immerse themselves in a non-native language.
The patent, awarded Tuesday, was first filed in January of 2008 and updated to include email a year ago. The application lists Matthew and Michael Lee as co-inventors on behalf of Apple. It does not appear to cover any method of filtering objectionable visual content, and is not currently implemented in any iOS device.