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A couple days ago, a well-meaning colleague of mine, who often sends me e-book pornlinks to news stories he finds online that may be of interest to the TeleRead community, emailed me with a real whopper.

The link he sent took me to a CNET article that certainly grabbed my attention; “E-book porn flourishes on Amazon’s Kindle,” it was titled. Naturally, I gave it a thorough read. (For professionals reasons, of course!)

But my amusement was short-lived. Because this wasn’t just any old news article, although it most definitely did present itself as such. No, this was actually an opinion piece masquerading as a news item. And the opinion of the article’s author, a CNET News staff writer by the name of Donna Tam, has me more than a little fired up.

Let me explain.

The article in question describes how Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform has been slipping a bit lately on the self-censorship front. Apparently, scores of amateur smut peddlers have been cobbling together poorly-produced porno picture books, and selling them on the cheap through KDP. Some of these e-books even include “a weak attempt at a storyline,” according to Tam’s CNET piece. From the article:

“Some of the milder titles include “The Dirty Blonde 2,” which comes with a self-prescribed adults-only warning … and more than 80 photos of a woman posing in various stages of undress. It’s yours for only $2.99 or, like many of the titles, you can even borrow it through Amazon Prime’s lending library.”

Clearly, that statement begs a pretty obvious question: Who on earth is spending $2.99—or hell, even $0.99—on a collection of black-and-white nudie pictures, given the fact that hundreds—maybe thousands—of porn videos can be streamed online for free? But that’s not a question Tam’s CNET article aims to answer, so I’ll leave it alone for the time being.

Instead, Tam offers up a different question: Why isn’t Amazon, she wonders, doing a better job of screening its KDP submissions, especially given the fact that its content policy clearly disallows self-published pornography of any sort?

Tam asks the same question of Barnes & Noble, which apparently has a similar anti-porn policy, even though “searching for the term ‘adult picture book’ on the Barnes & Noble Nook store also produces a list of hundreds of adult-oriented e-books created by the company’s PubIt! Nook Books system,” she writes.

Those are fair enough questions, I suppose. And yet what bothers me so much about this article is the fact that Tam never bothers to question why Amazon and Barnes & Noble have chosen to censor—or attempt to censor, as the case may be—this sort of content in the first place. And regardless of your own personal feelings about porn, that is definitely a question that needs to be asked.

Please don’t misunderstand: I have a fairly firm grasp of the workings of the free market, and I understand perfectly well that companies not operated by the state are free to trade, or to not trade, whatever they please, as long as an item in question is legal. And we’ve gotten into debates before on this site about whether or not a company like Amazon, which nearly has a monopoly on the written word these days, should be held to a higher standard when it comes to the content they’re willing, or not willing, to sell. But I’m going to refrain from sharing my opinion on the subject, because it’s a very muddy philosophical argument I really don’t want to dive into right now.

The aspect of this whole business that rubs me the wrong way, I think, is the fact that both Amazon and B&N are taking it upon themselves to censor only self-published porn, when ‘professionally’ published porn is made freely available on their respective sites to any consumer with a credit card and an Internet connection. Just do a quick search for the words “porn” or “sex” in the Kindle or Nook stores, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

There are literally hundreds of choices on offer—many are of the erotic fiction variety, while others sell themselves as art books. Most come from publishers that clearly exist on the low-budget end of the publishing spectrum. The variety is so wide-ranging and large, in fact, that after scouring the Kindle store for just a few moments, I found myself wondering if perhaps Amazon wasn’t really censoring the self-published content on its site at all. In the aforementioned CNET article, Tam quotes from a written statement she says CNET received from Amazon: “We have processes and systems—both automated and manual—to detect and remove books that do not adhere to our posted Content Guidelines,” the quote reads.

Really? Why is it, then, that a Kindle Store search for the phrase “adult picture book” returns well over 2,000 results? Can it really be that difficult to remove the “offending titles,” as the Amazon statement refers to them, if they’re so easy to find?

Perhaps. But probably not.

My suspicion? Amazon (and Nook Media, and nearly any other outlet that sells porn, for that matter) makes a lot of money from these titles. A lot. No one actually seems to know just how big the U.S. porn industry really is, although a good number of reporters have attempted to put a number on it over the years. Writing in the New York Times in 2001, Frank Rich suggested the industry was responsible for “$10 billion to $14 billion in annual sales,” although that figure has since been questioned.

At any rate, it seems to me that what we have here is something of a double negative, for lack of a more appropriate term. We have an official policy in place from Amazon that smells of censorship, for one thing. And ethical arguments of pornography aside, I hope the majority of us here can agree that censorship of any sort—especially from a company with as much power and reach as Amazon—makes for the beginnings of a very slippery slope. (And again, I do realize that Amazon’s policy is actually self-censorship, since it’s not a state-owned entity. Still, this isn’t exactly B. Dalton we’re talking about here.)

As for the other half of that double negative, I get the sense that Amazon isn’t being entirely forthcoming by stating that it actively searches out and deletes self-published e-books that don’t adhere to its Content Guidelines. There are simply too many of these books available for that to be the case. Which, in a sense, I suppose, is a good thing.

I’m curious to hear from our readers: Do you think huge e-retailers should be going out of their way to remove content from their stores that ‘appeals to the prurient interest‘? And furthermore, do you think they actually are doing so? Or is their self-censorship claim simply a party line they pull out when reporters ask them to explain why they’re selling such low-grade smut?

And finally, speaking of reporters, I contacted Amazon’s PR department earlier today, and requested a response in regards to their official porn policy. I’m not expecting a call.

e-book porn

 
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