Paypal blocks the word "Tardigrade" and "Cuba", forcing shops to rename their products

In yet another example of the algorithm only being as smart as the human who programmed it, Paypal has caused sales losses and scared off customers from buying "tardigrade ornaments" because apparently you can't use the word "tardigrade" in the sale code.

This makes it a bit difficult for shops like Archie McPhee "we make weird" to program the receipts of what customers buy, as they now have to rename all their tardigrade items to "water bear" items in the pricing system so that the sales will be accepted by Paypal. Worse still, the message shown to the user could scare the customers away from the shop itself completely, as it states that "the transaction can not be completed because it violates the Paypal user agreement"

What we have here is a classic example of the Scunthorpe Problem. It's the unintentional blocking of websites, e-mails, forum posts or search results by a poorly constructed spam filter or search engine because the text contains a string of letters that appear to have an obscene or otherwise unacceptable meaning. Residents of the city of Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire, England, could not create AOL accounts back in 1996, because AOL's profanity filter wouldn't accept their address. To this day, there are companies that I can not send emails to, because the Serbian surname of a legendary Russian vice-admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy sounds more like a phrase you'd hear in a feministic rap song and is usually filtered out. I'm very familiar with the Scunthorpe problem.


So what did the poor wee adorable little tardigrade do? He's just an adorable little Wasser Bär, a microscopic water bear that Lazzaro Spallanzani dubbed a Tardigradum in 1777 because of its slow-motion gait. Yes, tard as in tardy, that is from Latin retardāre (“to retard”), from re- + tardus and...... Oooooooh hang on, I see what's happening here. 

The word police that have campaigned to remove terms like retarded from GitHub, and are now busy renaming the master-slave concepts, and whitelists vs blacklists in computing have reached the inner workings of Paypal. Where they have ironically blacklisted a term they believe is offensive. While the Latin roots and later French word retardé is specifically about slowing something down and the English import of this word in chemistry, physics, and engineering, keeps this meaning of "slowing down" as in a "retarding agent", or a retarder slowing down engines or trains - people who are less versed in etymology or STEM think about one English word that they find offensive instead. That word is retarded. 

Years ago people with intellectual disabilities were classified according to how severe their "mental retardation" was, so an "idiot" had "severe mental retardation". Somewhere along the years retard just became a schoolboy bullying chant, and graduated to an offensive term - while idiot somehow survived scrutiny and is now a term describing a stupid or foolish person. So naturally a shortened version of the term, "tard", is now on a list of verboten words at Paypal. The only way to fix this issue is to rename all the products. Now how will fans of the tardigrade find their tardigrade items? This is not limited to one store, it's all the shops that use Paypal as a payment system, who sell anything with the four-letter combination "tard" in its name.

So, in a rush to not offend anyone, Paypal just created a new Scunthorpe problem. This whole situation is in a word, retarded. 

This retailer claims the word "Cuba" is banned as well.

Update 2pm PST The plot thickens. Why would "Cuba" and "Tardigrade" both be banned? Tobias French points out that this is due to "TARDIGRADE LIMITED" being registered with the OFAC Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list in this tweet.

But this is, just like the Scunthorpe problem, is just as dumb. If an entity on this list has a common enough word in its name, then any online retailer using Paypal would run into this problem. The developer founder of Grokability Alison Gianotto, a.k.a "Snipeyhead" points this out using the word "box" as an example. It could just as well be "moon" or "wolf" in a banned company name, and suddenly half of the world's jewelry and t-shirts could no longer be sold via Paypal. Or what if one of the banned persons is named "Brown", then products in the color itself would run into issues.

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Dabitch's picture

The always useless "community as unpaid help/tech support" has left a question unanswered since Sept 6 regarding the word Tardigrade here at Paypal.

Dabitch's picture

Another update:

Geekwire has a statement from Paypal confirming the OFAC issue:

"As a US company, PayPal has to comply with US government OFAC sanctions. Payments that may potentially violate US sanction laws may be placed under review instead of automatically declined. Our goal is to deliver seamless payment experiences, and it is never our intent to hinder legitimate business operations. If, upon review, there is nothing in the payment that indicates it might violate the law, the payment will be processed. We realize any delay in making or receiving a payment can be frustrating, and appreciate our customers patience as we work to meet our compliance obligations."