Tuesday, October 15, 2013
eBook Censorship In A Global Multi-Cultural World?
How do you censor the digital world? Can you censor the digital world? Is it right to even try to censor the digital world?
In the 70s and 80s campaigners such as Mary Whitehouse created movements such as the Student Christian Movement and Moral Re-Armament. She led a crusade to clean-up TV. She founded the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association and was a leading figure in the Nationwide Festival of Light. She did initiate a successful private prosecution against Gay News on the grounds of blasphemous libel, the first such case for more than fifty years. But her often overzealous mission waned, alienated many and public opinion accepted a more liberal approach. Malcolm Muggeridge’s TV attack on ‘The Life of Brian’ Python film and at John Cleese and Michael Palin is another example of the moral posturing of the time.
We now have the question of ebook content and self-publishing and whether a combination of these is promoting and selling pornographic e-books which feature incest, rape and bestiality and the reaction of sites such as Amazon, Kobo, Nook and others?
In a somewhat kneejerk reaction WH Smith took its site down and publicly stated this was with the sole aim of removing all abuse-themed ebooks. WH Smith partners with Kobo in the UK. Kobo meanwhile announced it was, ‘working quickly to review its catalogue and remove the content, authors and publishers in question’. They were also, ‘evaluating new procedures to help ensure that this type of content will not become available... in the future.’
Over the weekend US retailing giant Barnes & Noble said offending titles were in the process of being removed.
The questions are not whether the books are self-published or ‘published’, graphic or textural, but what is acceptable and what is not and how do you police abuse?
Some would suggest that automated programmes can be used to screen offensive titles, metadata and even the content itself, but what is offensive and once you draw a line in the sand how do you later adjust it to match changing public values? What may have been offensive 20 or even 10 years ago may be acceptable today and visa-versa.
Were ‘Lolita’, ‘Lady Chatterley,’ ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ and others acceptable to the moral majority on their release? Is ’50 Shades’ literature or soft porn? When does soft porn become hard? Is the violence portrayed in some video games acceptable or over the top? Are some of the Photographs of the likes of Newton, Mapplethorpe, Akari etc art or pornography? How do you determine whether a picture or video is abusive?
Words are just that and without context in there are meaningless. So do we have contextual search engines that determine what is good and what is evil? Is the answer binary, or are there 50 Shades of pornography? Should all material have a rating? A chiili counter, one chilli denotes with parents guidance and Five chillis, red hot and strictly adults only.
The previous owner of my wife’s business, Bibliophile, was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for bringing into the UK a reprint of ‘The Amorous Illustrations of Thomas Rowlandson.’ The case was thrown out when it was revealed that the originals of many of the pictures were in the Queen’s private library. ‘If it was good enough for her Majesty, surely it was good enough for her subjects?’ was the killer remark.
Some would point to China with its reported millions of internet state watchers aimed at blocking and censoring unwanted material. Others would suggest that some governments are taking the right steps to block sites promoting abusive materials. But the question remains what is abusive and what is not?
The question of self-publishing is frankly a red herring and after all there are significant examples of similar materials that are ‘published.’
Finally, we must all remember that there is always the ultimate censor - ‘off’ button.