At the time of writing, the WHSmith website remains down, Barnes & Noble are “removing” material, Waterstones are “investigating”, and Amazon, characteristically silent, are culling titles. The reason for this is a proliferation of self-published pornographic ebooks dealing with incest, pseudo-incest, bestiality and rape. You’re probably aware of the background by now, but here is a potted history of the ongoing situation, along with some relevant links.
Following the revelation that there was such a thing as dinosaur porn online, we all laughed a bit and vomited a bit. Having tweeted about that, the writer Jeremy Duns began looking into related material, on the basis that: a) werewolf porn is basically bestiality, so what else is out there; and b) this kind of shit has darkened the corridors of the left room before, and Jeremy was involved with that. This led to a Kernel article about the offending material, along with a (then) list of some of the grimmer titles on offer (trigger warning), which was then picked up by the Daily Mail, and other news outlets. Everything then basically caught fire and exploded. Online ebook sellers have been scrabbling to get rid of the titles, with varying degrees of both success and proportionality. A lot of perfectly ‘innocent’ erotica (and non-erotica) appears to have been caught in the crossfire, Kobo have indicated they’re temporarily removing all self-published ebooks, and many people are furious.
The two most important questions about this whole issue are fundamentally boring. The first question is: “Are these books against the law?”. The second is: “Do the companies want to stock them?”. These are boring questions because they have fairly straightforward yes/no answers that completely resolve the issue. In the first case, a yes would mean a responsibility to remove the books in question, while the latter would allow it regardless.
The End. Nothing more to see here.
A third question is whether a company’s approach to removing the material is sensible, reasonable and proportionate. In an old job, I would occasionally build databases, and it was always a nightmare when you were required to add to them on an ad hoc basis, because you invariably ended up with an unwieldy beast of a thing. From the front end, it might do everything it was supposed to, but you were only ever one urgent change, one addition or subtraction, away from having to say: “No, sorry. It simply won’t do what you suddenly want it to, because you didn’t build that feature in at ground level”. I get the impression that certain companies may have charged into the digital fray equipped with the equivalent of such a database. Certainly, WHSmith.co.uk has been offline for several days now (and will have lost millions of pounds as a result), all to remove a small handful of titles; you imagine that’s not by choice. Equally, Kobo’s removal of all self-published titles, however temporary, inevitably comes across as a kind of desperate and ill-prepared flailing, as though they only remembered to start installing delete buttons from the fifth floor up.
On a related note, it’s interesting to read Selena Kitt’s post, which mentions another ‘new’ way in which epublishing platforms are effectively being gamed. From sockpuppetry to review factories and beyond, I’m increasingly reminded (perhaps appropriately) of the brave new technology of Jurassic Park, where all the dinosaurs are the same sex, so they can’t possibly breed, and so everything will be fine. Except of course, someone didn’t do their research, and in reality you generally can’t predict the flaws and problems in a new system until they appear and you’re forced to deal with them.
All that aside, if those are the boring questions, what are the interesting ones? Well, I’d say they revolve less around “is it” and “do they” and more around “should it be” and “should they”.
Let’s take the latter first. Any company is free to choose the items it sells: there can surely be no argument there. If Amazon don’t wish to sell pornographic titles then there is no obligation for them to do so. Certain considerations aside, any supplier is free to choose its stock, so Kobo is no more obliged to provide self-publishers with a platform than your neighbour is. A fruit-seller shouldn’t refuse to stock your oranges on the basis that you’re a woman or gay or black, but they’re also not compelled to alter their business model and start selling your mushrooms.
Freedom of speech and censorship are terms that are often abused online, and they have been here, but I actually think censorship is an acceptable term to use in this instance, albeit only in a small, everyday sense: one that doesn’t involve government intervention. Censorship is morally neutral as a term, as is prejudice. So in the same way that we can talk of self-censoring our outbursts, and might be personally prejudiced towards a particular flavour of ice-cream, I think we can use those terms here, so long as we’re careful not to purloin the moral weight and import of wider definitions. Ebook platforms are prejudiced against certain subject matter and are censoring it from their catalogues. That’s totally okay.
It’s much the same with freedom of speech. As the fundamental underpinning of an equal and democratic society, the term has no real place here. That said, if (theoretically) the places where 99.99% of ebooks are sold refused to stock you, and the places where 99.99% of online transactions are carried out refused to handle your money, I could see the point in tentatively employing the phrase. It would, again, be in a lesser sense, but if there is both demand and supply for a legal product, and yet the two can’t meet, we might reasonably begin thinking in those terms. At the same time, transaction could still be completed by cash in some back room somewhere, and while that might not be ideal for sellers and buyers, it’s still preferable to forcing products on retailers that don’t want them. Tough shit, in other words. I’m far from being without sympathy, but life goes on.
As to illegality, I imagine it’s safe to say that some of the material being removed would be classed as such. As this (excellent) blog points out, fictional material can still be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act. And in light of the BBFC’s refusal to grant classifications to entirely fictional films such as Murder Set Pieces and Grotesque, it would be a brave individual that risked either supplying or procuring those titles in the UK. But that, of course, is not the same as saying that should be the case, and here we do finally encounter the debates around freedom of speech in its purest form.
In my opinion, the default position is that all speech should be considered acceptable, and that it requires evidence of damage to disallow it: damage in the production or damage in the consequence. The former is easiest to deal with. In the case of genuine child pornography, say, a real child has been hurt, and the observer is both retrospectively complicit in that and also instrumental in creating demand for more children to be hurt. There is real damage there. If the piece in question is a work of fiction, then things appear less clear-cut. No real person is damaged, and no real person will be. In the case of film, it’s acted; in the case of written fiction, it’s entirely invented.
In terms of damage in the consequence, we’d be looking at someone being incited by reading or viewing this material to commit harm, but the evidence for this occurring in reality is sketchy and inconclusive. There are obvious problems collecting and interpreting the data on this. For example, if every convicted child killer in the world was proved to have watched relevant violent pornography, it would still only really tell us about child killers, not violent pornography itself. For the latter, you would need more. If lots of harmless people read or watch rape porn, then the connection becomes less and less meaningful. In other words: without evidence, don’t mix up cause and effect. Of course violent rapists will likely have viewed that kind of pornography at some point; that is, by definition, the kind of thing they are likely to seek out. But logically, that doesn’t mean it creates, causes or even influences violent rapists and what they do in real life.
Bottom line: this stuff is grim. I don’t want to read it, and however harmless you might be, a prejudiced part of me doesn’t particularly want you anywhere near me or my child if that’s the kind of thing you enjoy wanking off to. But when it comes to freedom of speech, we pride ourselves on it as a society, and we’re always aware that in theory there may be something awful waiting in the wings we have to approve without necessarily approving of. But we’re rarely ever called upon to do so. This seems like one of those times. So: I really, really don’t like what some of you are writing and reading. And yet I defend your right to do so.