This past weekend was a particularly bad one for just about every major e-book retailer out there, with revelations that hard-core pornographic content was rampant in their electronic stores. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and WH Smith were just a few of the e-book retailers found by The Kernel, an online muckracking website based in the United Kingdom, to be selling e-books from self-published authors glorifying such topics as rape, incest and bestiality.
In what it describes as “an epidemic of filth,” the site says that “unlike the bookshelves in physical stores, online bookstores appear to be a Wild West of depraved content sure to horrify every parent and book-lover. Some of Britain and America’s most treasured brands are profiting from paperbacks, e-books and audio books stuffed with deeply repellant material that skirts the boundaries of illegality.”
Some of the content on sale is indeed truly repellent, with titles ranging from Taboo Acts Vol. I: Loving the Dog to Raped By Daddy: Daddy’s Sex Slave Part 1. Many of the retailers wasted no time in taking action, with WH Smith, for one, shutting down its website to remove the offending content. Depending on the individual retailer and specific countries in question, many of the companies could be in violation of several kinds of laws, obscenity among them.
Their go-to defence as to how such titles were allowed to be sold in the first place is that they slipped through screening processes, mainly because of the “massive amount” of self-published material, as WH Smith put it in a statement.
Evidently, e-book retailers have discovered the same issue the rest of the Internet has been dealing with for some time – the need to curate their respective parts of it, a difficult task in the face of huge and potentially limitless content. While automated systems are sure to be able to detect and block some content, it is shocking that companies as big as Amazon don’t have at least a few individuals manually checking for this stuff on a regular basis. Or if they do, how did they miss it?
What could make the companies’ defences more problematic is that there’s one notable name not included in this investigation: Apple. The iPad maker is notorious for its anti-porn stance and, while searching its iBooks store for titles containing words such as “daddy” does indeed turn up some prurient material, there doesn’t appear to be anything as depraved as in the other stores. It sure looks like Apple has been a little more diligent in curating what authors are self-publishing through its store.
Of course, wherever pornography goes, so too does the freedom-of-speech argument. The argument can in fact be made that the e-book retailers aren’t actually doing anything wrong by allowing such content to be sold, because it is fiction. As PJ Vogt of media analysis site OnTheMedia.org told the BBC, “We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production.… Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don’t exist in real life.”
Writing for The Guardian, Ally Fogg also notes that while some studies have shown that visual pornography can have negative effects on people, there is no real science claiming the same as far as simple reading and writing is concerned:
There is an abundance of academic literature on the psychological and behavioural effects of visual pornography – albeit with little consensus on results – but virtually no research on the impacts of the written word. Is someone with abusive paedophile tendencies more or less likely to put those urges into action if he (or indeed she) can indulge those fantasies within the confines of a book? The simple truth is that nobody knows.
One thing everyone agrees on is that allowing such material to be easily found by children is a problem. It’s easy, after all, to imagine the horror of a child visiting an e-book store and innocently typing in “daddy” only to be confronted with shocking results.
But again, that issue isn’t really different from anything else online, where the worst kinds of pornography – the visual kind – is only a search away. Welcome to the Internet, e-bookstores.