Error 451 Algorithm

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction
A scifi short story about the possible future of censorship.

Submitted: June 18, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 18, 2019



While Siri Appleton believed her job at the Intelligence Bureau allowed her to make useful contributions to the greater good it also made her hate her given name.

No, I don't want to talk to Siri! I want to talk to a human being,” was the common greeting she got from a certain older demographic.

Not even the sight of her non-CGI face was enough to convince the latest irate complainant she was human, “I am Siri Appleton, the human grievance agent you requested. How may I help you?”

The man's nostrils flared, “Yeah, right.”

You are free to use any certified AI ID software to confirm my claim,” she added, keeping her voice neutral by a force of will.

Her monitor showed he ran the software twice and kept it on throughout the course of their vidchat, “How may I help you?” She asked him with a smile.

He sighed, “I'm Rick Marner. I've operated a bakery for 25 years, and my webpage got flagged as an adult site for using the term 'cake.' The Error 451 AI refuses to take the designation off no matter how many times I ask it to.”

She called up the URL he'd submitted and saw it listed specials on birthday cakes.

Why would 'cake' get flagged?” he muttered.

It's current slang for sex.”

Rick sputtered, “I can't believe I've got to find a PC alternative to 'cake' because it's been co-opted by perverts. What else am I supposed to call them so my customers understand what I'm talking about?”

I have re-categorized your website, and noted your concern. Would you prefer we send you updates of our latest keywords for your trade?”

I would've never voted for that damn AI as a security measure against terrorism if I'd known it'd keep changing its trigger words like this,” Rick muttered. “It’s supposed to root out extremism, not be thought police.”

The Intelligence Bureau finds it best to monitor microaggression before it escalates into radicalization,” Siri sighed.

Rick snorted before he disconnected the vidchat.

The rest of the day was more of the same so it was a relief to get back home to Brand so they could relax with the newest episode of their favorite show Libertarian.

Brand needed to relax as much as she did. When she got home, he studied his mobile with a jaundiced eye. His spiky black hair raised in almost prehensile tufts making question marks. He was viewing a sensitivity training course. The corners of his mouth lifted as if he were about to laugh. His dark eyes became hooded as he leaned back to drink the black coffee he needed to keep alert.

She studied his chiseled profile in wonder. And to think it all begin as a turk on the Error 451 portal.

The Bureau gave its employees overtime with a series of turks to earn extra money with routine tasks the A.I had a hard time executing. One of them was to review episodes of the classic TV series Libertarian.

Libertarian gripped her so much she embraced the opportunity to attend a Libertycon as a chance to meet other fans and to monitor them for radicalization. The Bureau regarded anything that generated a fanbase as a potential covert operation to recruit people into radicalism. However, most fan conventions were harmless diversions. Everyone needed an outlet, and it was invigorating to be around people excited about something.

How could she begrudge any fandom that inspired people to get ripped so they could cosplay their favorite characters? Brand had a vigorous weigh-lifting regime so he'd look good as a normally shirtless native warrior he liked on the show. They exchanged numbers and met up for non-fan events. Now she came home to him.

The Libertarian fandom had given her so much. She hadn't been this excited about something since she used to view Grandma's blu-ray collection of classic cartoons about the sassy Br’ier Bunny who kept outwitting hunters. However, it was taken off the streams when cartoon firearms were deemed inappropriate and offensive. Grandma promised her she'd give her the blu-rays in her will, but her mother sold them to a collector to pay for her college fund. She'd searched for the cartoons in vain on the public streams.

I'm looking at the sensitivity training modules as continuing education for the job,” Brand said. “They teach me the latest hot buttons and offensive swear words for my standup routine.”

He made the concept of free speech so enticing even if it were an unrealistic ideal! Scanning the nets for data that triggered the Intelligence Bureau's error 451 algorithm made Siri's work a dry routine. However, looking at the results of what the algorithm missed was enough to convince her she was providing an essential service. The fact that there hadn't been a terrorist attack in 50 years made people think the Intelligence Bureau was an obsolete relic, but Siri knew how important the error 451 algorithm was for flagging extremist content. There was too much data being generated to keep on top of every potential hot spot so the process was done by automation. Whenever a red flag was raised, the algorithm kicked in. Any stream with suspect data was redirected to an Error 451 message and closed down. Yet sometimes a human brain was more discerning than an automated system could be…

It’s a good thing Libertarian’s newest episode is on tonight. We both need it,” she sighed.

While the Libertarian feed allowed binging for their viewers' convenience the newest episodes were released on Wednesday nights. It was as important to their social calendar as date night.

They ate dinner with apple pie as dessert and settled in to watch the episode on the couch by donning their VR Suits and goggles so they could have an immersive experience.

There was a survey pop–up that ruined the mood as the algorithm asked them to rate words from interesting to offensive, “Damn pop–ups!” Brand waved his hand. Siri wanted their experience to be in sync so she did the same.

The words, “The Right to Bear Arms.” flashed on as the episode started.

Oh it's fan service,” Siri said, thinking the show would feature more shirtless actors.

She only saw the immersive environment of the episode but heard Brand laugh in her real life environment, “Haven't you ever heard of the second amendment?”


Two men came to view before her. One clutched a musket and glanced down its barrel while a man looked over a stash of muskets.

Do you have anything that'll do for hunting game?” Arnold, the showrunner, asked.

I've got one that'll do for sniping that should fit the bill.…”

ERROR 451” came into Siri's line of vision and there was the sound of an alarm.

It was so loud that Siri and Brand took of their VR helmet and glasses to escape the noise.

Damn that trigger–happy Error 451 Bureau! You never know what'll set them off,” Brand grumbled.

He took out his smartphone and keyed in some commands, “Good thing there's a torrent site on the darknet.”

What!” Siri gasped.

Brand grinned, thinking she was impressed instead of appalled, “The Libertarians show uncensored episodes in their darknet chatroom. They'll have the episode there.”

Siri winced at this, Radicalization. “I'd rather have a clean feed. Who knows what kind of malware and viruses you'll find on the darknet. It's little better than a quarantine zone.”

Brand patted her hand, “The Bureau isn't just quarantining corrupt data. They're censoring non-PC pov's. Every time the algorithm comes up with more trigger words it drives more forums and websites to the darknet.”

Siri gulped at the thought of all the unmoderated forums there must be on the darknet, “Well you wouldn't want the extremists recruiting operatives and coordinating like they did before the algorithm came into use.”

It was an emergency measure that's never been lifted although they keep talking about how many years it's been since there was an attack,” Brand said. “You love Libertarian, but the American Revolution would've never happened if the British had the error 451 algorithm at their disposal."


The Libertarians’ chatroom operated as a non–-stop VR fan convention. The put on their VR suits again and their avatars walked side-by-side in VR. She saw the public portal was closed by order of the Error 451 Bureau.

Don't worry I know where the secret entrance is,” Brand said.

Brand navigated up to a surly cosplayer dressed as a muscle-bound Uncle Sam leaning against a wall. “Codeword?” he barked.

Give me liberty,” Brand said.

Uncle Sam nodded and disappeared leaving an open door in the wall. Siri sighed. She usually came to the Libertarian chatroom as a fan, but now it was her job to investigate this secret chatroom as a Bureau operative.

The VR chatroom looked like a bar she could enter and immerse herself in. People were gathered at a wall panel. Siri expected them to be held spellbound by a decadent delight, but she saw images of a familiar cartoon bunny chomping on a carrot. “Br'ier!” she cried out in delight.

Brand groused, “Where’s the newest Libertarian episode?”

Br'ier was paused and dismissed so the Bureau's shutdown notice to the legal distributors of Libertarian re-runs was projected on the wall panel for inspection.

The Libertarian feed has been reviewed by the Intelligence Bureau, and distribution of this feed's creative content is to cease immediately. The distributors are free to resubmit their feed after it has been edited to comply with the Intelligence Bureau's guidelines, but its current content perpetuates anti-social memes that foment civil discontent in global society.

She heard footsteps behind her and turned to face Ruffntuff coming in for her latest session in her favorite biker gear.

Ruffntuff's appearance meant that the Professor was soon to follow. Most times he'd be in the chatroom with his avatar “sleeping” in a booth like some passed out drunk when he wasn't logged in to keep it active. Now he was looking at the notice.

My media studies course says these feeds are the gladiatorial games of the modern age. People will act out in real life if we don't allow them outlets for their aggression,” the Professor said. He wore a lab coat and thick glasses as he made this statement. So far none of his utterances were at odds with his chosen appearance, but Siri suspected he used the Professor avatar to assume an air of authority he didn't have in real life.

Ruffntuff snorted, “Why must everything be political with that damn Bureau? Error 451 was supposed to discourage radicalization on the net. Now they want the entire world to be their safe room from dissenting and offensive opinions. I hear opinions I don't like or agree with all the time, and no one thinks a feed should be canceled on my say so!”

The Professor sighed, “We're thinking of moving the Libertarian chatroom to the darknet and hosting a torrent site.”

That's extreme,” Siri said.

It's too much of a hassle to fight the PC Police at the Error 451 Bureau. You never know what'll trigger the algorithm,” the Professor said.

There's an automated vetting system that allows you to check for triggers in your streams before you broadcast anything so you can make corrections before you upload it for distribution,” Siri said.

Brand's brow furrowed, “How do you know this?”

She closed her eyes and sighed, “I work for them.”

So they send in moles to monitor fandoms. I'm tired of accommodating the censors. They keep moving the targets,” Ruffntuff muttered.

Everyone may contribute to the algorithm and revise it. That's why the public feeds have those surveys on each broadcast. The most outspoken factions end up dictating policy,” Siri said.

Yeah, and you never know if your comments will get you flagged for a watchlist,” Ruffntuff snorted.

There's a fine-line between being assessed as a threat and an influencer. Get categorized as an influencer and your voice is given more weight in the algorithm.”

You told us you were a VR geek who worked in the IT field when you submitted your application to this chatroom,” the Professor said. He called up her application form and added notes to it.

My employer prefers I stay at their headquarters and act as a member of their IT support. I get low pay for my qualifications, but a lot of perks. I have more leverage than the average civilian. I'll see what I can do about the shutdown of the Libertarian feed, “Siri said.

She winced when she saw that her words were recorded for future reference on her chatroom profile. The Professor flagged her as a “possible informant” and let her see the note before he closed down her profile from view.

The Professor frowned, “Our ancestors risked their lives to gain their freedom. Risking inclusion in a watchlist is a small price to pay if we get the chance to be influencers.”

Ruffntuff, Brand and Prof glanced at Siri, “We want a sign of good will on your part.”

I can resubmit a request the episode be reassessed. You may reformat it. The algorithm's trained to learn my preferences, and I'll risk being categorized as a potential threat if your influence campaign is unsuccessful.”

They nodded “yes” at this.

Fair enough, you'll get a download of the entire 'Br'ier Bunny' run when you complete your errand for us.”

It was silly, but it was a tempting bribe.


Brand didn't speak to her the morning. She went in to work feeling as if a ball of bile was congealed in her stomach, but followed through on her promise. Appeals from someone with leverage were often more useful than petitions by citizens. She could act in her capacity as a data technician who'd noticed an anomaly instead of a private citizen making a protest.

She called up a suitable template and filled out the information and logged it in.

Two moments later she received an alert she'd been tagged for “extremist activity.”

There was the obligatory link that could log a grievance against an automated judgment. Her finger hovered over the link. She almost touched it, but then remembered that an automatic notification would be sent to her supervisor if she filed a grievance. It would alert him to her objections to the rating system, and he would collect evidence against her.

She gnashed her teeth in frustration. It was ridiculous to live in fear, but she knew it was best not to raise any red flags except as a last resort. Many civilians needlessly complicated their lives without realizing this. It was hard to tell if knowing this made her wise or a coward.

She saved the message instead, and checked her terminal to see if she still had access to the databanks, half expecting it to be downgraded, but there was no notifications to that effect. She had to take several deep breaths as she reviewed her options. Trying to remember the protocols.

Sometimes she had to engage in what would be suspicious activity on their networks for the sake of testing its security. Such tests were a part of her job description—she snapped her fingers.

It was best to treat this like one of the security checks. She would have two hours to clear this up, or else her actions would be placed on her employee record. All she had to do was pretend that an error was made, and a debugging was needed.

She called up the automated notification again. There was a “report bug to technical support” option in her notification that wouldn't be there for a civilian.

She chose the option and it led to a contact form and added a note, “I alerted the Intelligence Bureau databank to a possible bug in the entertainment rating system, and it raised a red flag on my personal record. The bug is more intensive than I thought. I need to have the red flag cleared.” She rated it high priority.

Let them think she was just a geek dealing with an annoying bug in the error 451 algorithm instead of a possible radical who'd been tagged. Her heart pounded as she waited for the automated review. The AI checked her work record, which was pristine up to now.

Your account is in adjudication, and the bug has been logged. The red flag is downgraded to a yellow flag, and will be removed once the bug has been fixed.

Siri's hands shook in relief.

It occurred to her she didn’t want to do this again, and it was best to make sure this didn’t happen in the future. The error 451 algorithm wasn't set off if content producers applied their own censoring either with re-edited dialogue, or else deletions of the transmission, or bleeping over offensive terms themselves.

She looked up to see the Libertarian feed’s record and saw it was in stasis. It wasn't allowed to stream now, but they could resubmit it for evaluation so it wasn't considered propaganda by enemies of the state.

Siri sighed as she crafted a notification explaining the details to the Libertarians whose contact information was on file. There was no way she could help them if they would be militant free speech advocates. Then again, would they have applied for a broadcast license on the public feeds if they weren't willing to comply with the regulations? Her unsolicited communique may seem suspicious to her superior if he knew of it, but he counted on the A.I. to do most of the work for him. She may get away with this…

When the next break time came Siri checked her mobile, the Libertarian stream was back. She watched it and there were beeps so Siri assumed that the producers must've applied the beeps themselves rather than activate the error 451 algorithm.

She went back home to Brand, and they entered the Libertarians’ chatroom together.

The Professor and Ruffntuff were in a booth and motioned her over.

The Professor smiled, “I got your message and ran the transmissions through my editing software. I refuse to delete scenes, but will bleep out words. The public broadcasts act as a teaser for the unedited transmissions I make available to the platinum members of the Libertarian VR chatroom.

Really,” Siri said, “That's well—interesting.”

Siri's mind screamed, “Radicalization.” even as the Professor added, “We've reinstated your membership privileges.”

She glanced around the room. The avatars present were reclining in booths and it'd would take a crane to move most of them from their spots. They'd make an effective army for an influence campaign. Her head ached with all the political ramifications of what she'd just done. She'd wanted to have some private space of her own and not be seeing every single transmission as an act of possible extremism!

The Professor's free speech advocacy could be nothing more than naïve idealism or it could be a wedge. It was her duty to monitor the situation, but she wasn't sure she had the heart to. She'd have to talk it over with Brand in private tonight, if he’d speak to her…

Here are some public notices about sensitive topics that pertain to the Libertarians. I can’t tell you more without being accused of giving you “inside” information.” She sent out to the Libertarians.

Brand chuckled over the list, and Siri groaned. He loved to live dangerously. She knew he'd incorporate the newest trigger words into his standup routine. “Someone’s got to desensitize the public, so they’re no longer trigger words in the error 451 algorithm.”

She did her part by editing an episode of “Br'ier Bunny” for upload. She’d created her own public stream of the classic cartoon as a historical artifact to educate the audience. If that made her a “radical” so be it.





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