Amazon, Kobo and freedom of speech

Posted by on October 16th, 2013

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 at 9:35 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

 

5 Responses to “Amazon, Kobo and freedom of speech”

  1. Jeremy Duns Says:

    Great piece. Very thought-provoking!

    Some thoughts off the top of my head, for what they’re worth:

    I thought Selena Kitt’s piece was very interesting, and thought she made some good points, some of which I’ve also made on Twitter – for example, about the possibility of illegal material being published and sold because no human eye is looking at any of this stuff in detail – but I found her conclusions strange, especially as she singled out one book as being ‘kiddie porn’. Of course, I also object to her starting the piece complaining about gossip and inaccuracy before proceeding to gossip entirely inaccurately about me from anything she could find in a 5-minute Google for ammunition, to the extent she didn’t even bother to read Jeremy Wilson’s piece in The Kernel properly or do any research to see I’m not the same person, but simply concluded I might be him because I have the same first name, huh, who cares, I might be wrong, share this piece everywhere anyway and let’s make it me who wrote that. And I don’t feel I am in any way responsible for what other people write, think or do.

    I’m not sure I quite agree with you that this is censorship, or even quasi-censorship as I’ve seen it described elsewhere. I think that implies that they knew they were selling this stuff in the first place, which I doubt they did. And ‘some back room somewhere’ is surely just the rest of the internet, which is a vast back room: many millions of pages. Any author can publish and/or sell their work on their own website, or distribute it in other ways: set up a sex shop, for instance, or sell it to sex shops. People can set up websites to sell ebooks featuring porn about young teenagers being raped by their fathers if they want to, providing the material is legal. There’s also a lot of illegal material published on the internet, some of which is surprisingly easy to access, ie you don’t need to go into any Dark Net. The Al-Qaeda training manual found by Manchester police in 2000 is of dubious legality, for instance, having led to a couple of arrestes. The US introduced laws about bomb-making manuals and other material that might aid terrorists. All this stuff is available with a simple Google search. On Amazon, too, at the moment. But ‘freedom of speech’ isn’t ‘freedom of speech to have your book sold by a well-known online retailer’.

    I can see that perhaps in the very narrow linguistic sense you mention some retailers have chosen to censor *themselves* – but this was the case already, in principle albeit not entirely in practice. Selena Kitt’s post makes clear Amazon did not allow some material on certain grounds, even if that has sometimes been circumvented. And Amazon’s content policy since at least August 2011 has been that they don’t publish any pornographic content at all:

    ‘Pornography
    We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.

    Offensive Content
    What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.’

    https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A3KIRDTX1UQJX0

    Kobo’s policy rules out all of this stuff, too:

    http://www.kobobooks.com/contentpolicy

    That dates from March 2010.

    This, and the fact that none of this sort of material is on some other ebook sites, such as Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s, despite both stocking erotica (and really, porn, just not of this type), would suggest that there’s been quite a lot of censorship going on. I don’t think removing stock that you didn’t mean to sell is banning it, or censoring it.

    I agree on the free speech issue, but as you say free speech has legal limits, and moral ones. You believe fiction should never be off-limits, even if it is illegal, and I can understand that. Retailers will have their own views of what’s acceptable, and also have to stay within the law. But are they doing either? The two simple yes or no questions you asked don’t seem to be ones that they apply to their own stock, or at least not in any consistent and meaningful way. Could pornography that harmed children be sold under the current systems, for example? I don’t think it’s implausible at all. Amazon.fr and Amazon.de are selling tons of Holocause denial literature despite it being illegal in both those countries.

  2. stevemosby Says:

    I won’t respond at length, as I don’t disagree with most of it, but just to pick up on a couple of points:

    “I’m not sure I quite agree with you that this is censorship, or even quasi-censorship as I’ve seen it described elsewhere. I think that implies that they knew they were selling this stuff in the first place, which I doubt they did.”

    To clarify, I’m using censorship to refer to the policy of not stocking pornography in the first place, not for the act of removing it after the fact. It isn’t big-C Censorship, of course, but I don’t think the word’s out of place. Similarly, I’d refer to it as discrimination, but not in the more serious sense of the word. I think people see words like censorship, prejudice and discrimination and automatically think “those are bad things”, when actually, we all exercise them in small ways every day. The problem comes when the words are used in a small sense, but the argument relies on the gravitas of the larger.

    “And ‘some back room somewhere’ is surely just the rest of the internet, which is a vast back room: many millions of pages. Any author can publish and/or sell their work on their own website, or distribute it in other ways: set up a sex shop, for instance, or sell it to sex shops. People can set up websites to sell ebooks featuring porn about young teenagers being raped by their fathers if they want to, providing the material is legal.”

    Yes, this is true, but I was referring to the PayPal business. It could (and it was a theoretical situation) become borderline impossible for an individual to sell a legal product online. That’s not a Freedom of Speech issue in the true sense, but I can appreciate that, for the individual, the experience may begin to appear indistinguishable. Of course, there is no enforceable solution: just because you’ve created some legal porn doesn’t give you the right to sell it online. You could still sell it in the back room of a sex shop, or out the back of a van. Although given the nature of the internet and the increasing digitisation of product, there would certainly be some irony there.

    “The two simple yes or no questions you asked don’t seem to be ones that they apply to their own stock, or at least not in any consistent and meaningful way. Could pornography that harmed children be sold under the current systems, for example? I don’t think it’s implausible at all. Amazon.fr and Amazon.de are selling tons of Holocause denial literature despite it being illegal in both those countries.”

    Yes, I agree about this, and it’s a key issue. If you don’t have checks, then you can’t know. It’s a fundamentally stupid approach to retail on the face of it: equivalent to a store telling suppliers to come in and stack the shelves in the middle of the night with whatever they want. On the flipside, though, it’s made them a lot of money (30% is 30%), and helped to establish and boost the platforms in the marketplace, so perhaps the trade-off was worth it. And the porn element is only one symptom of unchecked content. For example, how many plagiarised ebooks are for sale right now with different titles? I bet there are thousands.

  3. stevemosby Says:

    “I won’t respond at length,” I say. Jesus, imagine if I had.

  4. Jeremy Duns Says:

    Fair enough. I suppose I see your point about ‘censorship’ in the same way as I do your comparison in the piece about a fruit-seller not selling mushrooms. Yes, technically it is, but then censorship is everywhere. I don’t think it’s the logical remit of these retailers to stock hardcore porn any more than it is a fruitseller censoring themselves by ‘refusing’ to stock mushrooms, or umbrellas, or whatever. Are you censoring by not publishing porn on this blog? Okay, you’re not a bookshop or publisher. But still, I don’t see there’s a logical link just because it’s published material. That is near-infinite. No bookshop chain in the UK has stocked hardcore pornography, ever, so if we take this definition they’re all censors, and have been for decades. No newspapers publish pornography, either. So nothing has changed. As for self-censoring, yes I do that, of course, but it’s conscious: I didn’t censor myself when I didn’t shout abuse at everyone I walked past in the street yesterday – it hadn’t been on my mind to do such a thing. Not yesterday, anyway. :) I think it just becomes a near-meaningless term in this sense, and is too easily misused. But… that is rather a tiny point, I know.

    We don’t disagree much, I think. I especially agree with your last paragraph here – ‘if you don’t check you can’t know’ seems to me to be exactly the problem. It’s something I’ve been interested in with regard to defamation on newspaper websites, for instance, by unmoderated or after-the-fact moderation of comments. It’s playing pot luck with the law, and people’s reputations. A publisher checks the books they publish thoroughly, including for legal problems, for very good reasons. The principles don’t change online, but we’ve just become used to the idea they aren’t applied, or are applied much less strictly. It’s much easier to see what the issues are if you imagine a defamatory comment published in the print edition of The Guardian, say, or the novella about a father raping their teenage daughter in the paperback section of your nearest High Street shop. But we don’t imagine that so much, I think in part because we’ve all become used to the Wild West nature of the internet very quickly.

  5. Meri Pentik. Says:

    Great post. I’ve only just caught up to this whole business today was disappointed with so much of the coverage focusing on how ‘vile’, ‘sick’ and ‘disgusting’ the titles in question were. I’m also not in the target group and do personally find much of it very vile indeed, but that’s not the point here (children accidentally finding it is). It’s absolutely the case that retailers should be free to choose what they stock, buyers equally free to buy any legal product even if I and very vocally the Mail on Sunday deem it distasteful and that any hysteria about either point is off-topic. This should only be a question of those retailers’ technology not doing its part and their not having made sure it was. I’m glad someone else agrees.

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