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Save the porn: Time to boycott Apple. And Amazon. And Google.

July 27, 2010

Steve Jobs wants to decide what books you can read.

You’re probably as sick of reading about the perils of e-books as I am of writing about them, but alas: Each day brings its own little horror–such as the news Apple is more than willing to  censor what books its iPad customers can read. Like erotica? Tsk, tsk, says Steve Jobs. Too bad.

I promise, if you read all the way to the end of this medicinal post, there will be a spoonful of celebratory sugar (We all love bookstores! Yay!). But first: Four of the titles leading Apple’s British e-book chart suddenly disappeared yesterday, apparently yanked by a company that’s shown its pruddish side more than once.

Books like Carl East’s Blonde and Wet: The Complete Story, iBooks’ U.K. No. 1, vanished in favor of anodyne titles like the Peter James thriller The Perfect Murder (violence is still less vulgar than sex) or Peter Mandelson’s New Labor memoir, The Third Man (though some critics and political opponents find it obscene in its own way).

This may seem a tempest in a teapot–who wants to defend porn, soft or otherwise?– but the implications (as always in censorship dust-ups) extend beyond those with a secret taste for smut to threaten my right to read what I want, and yours. Remember last summer, when Amazon yanked George Orwell’s 1984 from the Kindles of customers who had already paid for and downloaded it?

Extravagant ironies aside (1984? Really?), if e-books come to dominate literary culture — and some observers predict most books will be digital downloads within five years or less — then three massive companies will have complete and arbitrary control over the world’s information: Apple, Amazon, and Google. That’s everything from Mr. East’s latest sweaty palms masterpiece to the King James Version of the Bible.

What’s more, an argument can be made that true censorship can only be committed by a government. In the United States, official censorship is greatly restricted by the First Amendment. But Apple, Amazon, and Google are businesses — don’t they have the same right as a grocery store to stock and sell (or not sell) any products they like?

As an unrepentant fogy, I’m hoping a substantial minority of reading customers will keep printed books alive, just as audiophiles have revived the vinyl record (I’m laying down Mabe’s Rule: Analogue quality is always superior to digital. Don’t believe me? Listen to a record, then compare it to the digital download on your MP3 player).

But there’s no guarantee that will happen, or if it does that it will constitute enough of a market to keep the free flow of books, ideas and information alive.

It is therefore incumbent upon freedom-loving readers to resist with the only real power we have. That, of course, is the power of the purse.

So a modest proposal: If you own an iPad or similar device, please boycott iBooks until the dirty books are restored. Buy nothing from iBooks, and let Little Brother (that’s you, Steve–and you, Jeff, and you and you, Sergey and Larry) know why.

Housed in a restored 13th century Dominican church, Holland's Selexyz Bookstore is one of the world's most beautiful.

Now that I think on it a minute, let’s make this a not-so-modest proposal. Let’s boycott all products from Apple, Amazon and Google until their honchos pledge to allow the free flow of any legal information–including porn and Mein Kampf and meth cookbooks — through their various systems and retail outlets.

Your freedom to read and think for yourself is at stake.

Won’t it be hilarious if the digital revolution turns out to be a clampdown instead? Information wants to be free — yeah, right. Good one.

And as promised, go to Huffington Post for a gorgeous photo essay of some of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Sigh. I’m feeling better already…

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 27, 2010 3:26 pm

    We don’t need no thought control.

    Seriously–banning e-porn will only force it back into the tangible paper market. Try as some people might, I don’t see reading and viewing sex and pleasure ever being successfully outlawed.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2010 4:49 pm

      But if it is, then every other kind of possibly disapproved thought will be subject to control, by someone, too.

  2. July 27, 2010 3:49 pm

    Another good excuse for me not to buy an iPad. Reminds me that we’ve still got Puritans trying to filter EVERYTHING they consider nasty. Which says more about them, Steve Jobs included, than it says about what they are censoring. Blake said if you are already corrupt, you’ll see only corruption. It’s the corruption in you, not the object that creates your behavior. I’m paraphrasing but you get the drift, I’m sure.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2010 4:51 pm

      Like a radioactive dust cloud or the aroma of an industrial feed lot, the drift comes powerfully clear. But I’m not so sure this has anything to do with morality. I think it is power, pure and simple. Jobs, Bezos and their ilk want to control everything, pure and simple.

  3. Bobbi permalink
    July 27, 2010 6:22 pm

    Too late for me to boycott Apple completely. I have an iMac and an iPad, and I’ve downloaded a couple free classics from iBooks. But I will agree not to PURCHASE anything from iBooks. Or Amazon (that one’s easy).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2010 9:26 pm

      I love my Mac and plan to never buy a PC again. But we have to draw the line somewhere. Besides, Steve Jobs will soon come to his senses and sign a pledge to free dissemination of books.

  4. Betsy Roslund permalink
    July 27, 2010 8:58 pm

    Wow, “1984”. Really? How do they even have the legal right to decide which books to include and which to ban? And can you believe it’s 2010 and we’re talking about books being banned (sounded like “burned”) in eBooks? That having been soundly said, I have to just add that there is some porn that’s so raunchy that to me, it doesn’t qualify as art and therefore shouldn’t be protected the same way.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2010 9:34 pm

      But who is to make the distinction between protected and unprotected speech? You don’t like some forms of porn, but others may object to things you like. Say: Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Bible — indeed, almost every book ever written has been challenged or banned at some time or another.

      What we’re talking about here, though, is not banning in the conventional political sense. It’s companies making decisions about what they should make available based on financial or PR considerations. That’s why I’m calling a boycott of Amazon, Apple and Google. It’s the best weapon we have, and the only one they’ll pay attention to.

  5. Sean permalink
    July 28, 2010 11:00 am

    “Selexyz” is a hot word that Steve Jobs wants to ban. Gawd, that looks like a beautiful bookstore. It reminds me of the way I felt when my stepdad walked me through the one at the University of Chicago – p.s. I am not of the Milton Friedman/Chicago school of economic theory, but they do have an amazing, Oxford-looking campus “bookery”.

    Here’s another form of payback for Apple if you’re already contractually bound to them:

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/mobile/07/27/why.jailbreak.iphone/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 28, 2010 11:31 am

      You know, right, if Steve Jobs was a kid today he’d be jailbreaking all over the place.

  6. July 28, 2010 3:39 pm

    This isn’t about morality, no matter what Jobs is out there saying. Like most of corporate America, he cares only about profit. The rationale is simple: keep porn off of the iPad and you double the size of your target market.

  7. Sean permalink
    July 29, 2010 12:24 pm

    @Patrick, good point. Jobs and Bezos are in an interesting spot because they own the biggest e-book platforms in iPad and Kindle, and not that there aren’t others available, but those two are so dominant they could become the book world’s version of the electric company – the primary provider of an essential utility, with all the monopoly power that implies. Except that they’re private companies, as opposed to a regulated, semi-private outfit like, say, our very own and much-beloved (not!) FPL. I wonder if there’s a pivot where consumers and/or the gov’t would decide, sorry, you guys can’t have this de facto monopoly on a de facto public utility AND run it as a restricted, privately-held, profit-making enterprise. Would something have to give?

    I’m not “for” porn on the major Apple/Amazon e-book circuit. It’s defensible in artistic terms (and for now, in legal terms) to tell the porn biz to go build its own e-book platforms. Consider YouTube. Somebody in the New York Times argued persuasively a couple of years ago that YouTube has flourished in part because there’s no porn there. People who don’t want themselves or their children exposed to porn can access the site and contribute to it freely and without reservation, and that makes for a huge, involved audience and a legitimate mainstream cultural resource that’s available to all. (Talk about a de facto public utility.)

    I know YouTube has galaxies of drek but it’s also become, among other things, an amazing library of music on video. YouTube has expanded my listening exponentially. I suppose it could still have done all that for me even if it did allow porn, but there is something freeing in that I don’t have to worry or wonder what people think of me because I admit to watching YouTube. There’s no “Oh, I read ‘Playboy’ for the articles” alibi to provide. YouTube proves that one’s tolerance for porn is not the default test for how fully one supports freedom of expression.

    So, anyways, to get back to the issue, that’s part of why the potential audience for the iPad doubles when Jobs says no to porn: He gets everybody who wants a vibrant marketplace of ideas without having to run into any, uh, booby traps.

    Where Jobs may be going astray is in over-defining porn. From the examples Chauncey gave, it looks like Apple is just redlining anything remotely steamy. But that can be fixed, especially if Apple and Amazon do become the big, permanent e-book interstates. At that point they’ll have to scrap their house rules in favor of something like a prevailing community standard on what is and isn’t porn in literature.

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  1. MentalPolyphonics » How to Publish a Magazine on the iPad

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