By Brandon Gillet
The Internet can be a place full of knowledge, discovery and wonderment — and of hate and verbal abuse. We can make every effort to avoid the dark corners of cyberspace, but still be affected by offensive language we stumble on that’s not even directed at us.
Thanks to Nikola Draca, a third-year uOttawa computer science student, a free Chrome extension can now shield users from hateful language online. Soothe was created by Draca and his friend Angus McLean at a hacking event last February. The extension, which relies on a database of categorized keywords to blur out passages containing offensive content, takes no more than 15 seconds to set up.
“We had a friend in high school who was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, and she asked if we knew of a product that does what Soothe does,” Draca said. “At the time, there wasn’t anything this sophisticated available. Existing extensions required users to manually enter terms, which is a really tedious and often inaccurate process.”
McLean goes to McGill University, so he and Draca thought the CUHacking event at Carleton University would be ideal neutral territory to explore the idea. They wanted to find a way to streamline the process, so users could choose to avoid whole categories instead of just individual words.
“And we only populated it with about 40 terms, so if something new comes up, you can right-click it and add it to one of the categories,” Draca said.
The first edition of Soothe, which they built in 24 hours, won the Hack Harassment prize and another top award at the Carleton event.
The two friends have continued working on their creation for the past six months. “We have a long way to go, but it’s definitely much more refined than it was that day,” Draca said.
Some apps block whole pages or issue pop-up warnings when they detect offensive content, but Soothe aims to work unobtrusively in the background.
“We aren’t trying to censor the internet — so, for example, we’ve added a feature where you can click to reveal text that has been blurred out,” Draca said.
The Chrome extension is only the first step, as the friends have plans to build similar apps for other browsers. They are working now on adding image recognition and using their collected data to improve Soothe’s ability to keep up with evolving language in problematic corners of the internet.
“About 60% of the content that our extension catches is in the comments section of YouTube, which is pretty alarming,” Draca said. “And about 55% of that content is homophobic.”
They’re not interested in monetizing their extension, he noted. “We would never dream of charging users, but we are in talks now to find sponsors, as we’ve been doing this out-of-pocket.
“We think this is a massive issue that not enough people are taking seriously. We know this won’t be a tool to completely eradicate cyberbullying or online harassment, but it does empower people to some extent and allow them to browse with peace of mind.”