When I first wrote about Clean Reader 3 weeks ago, no one had heard of it, and no one was angry about it. I thought its automatic profanity filter was nifty on a technical level, and that some parents would love it.
Three weeks later and the app has been covered in the Washington Post and a half dozen other places, authors are up in arms, Chuck Wendig has cursed it out (no surprise there), Cory Doctorow had defended it on principle, and Smashwords had demanded that its catalog be pulled from the app's ebookstore.
And that's all within the past 4 days; who knows what tomorrow will bring.
Update: It brought this. Inktera pulled their ebookstore from the Clean Reader app, essentially killing the app (you can still sideload the ebooks).
I was planning a couple days ago to write a post on the pushback from authors, but the story quickly outgrew the original scope, and it continues to grow. And so rather than write a post, I will instead roundup the better posts I have found so far and comment upon them.
First, there's Smashwords. Mark Coker announced Wednesday evening that he asked for ebooks distributed by SW to be pulled from Clean Reader:
After a few days of careful consideration, today I requested that all Smashwords titles be removed from Clean Reader. Under the terms of our agreement with all retailers, retailers don't have permission to alter the words of our books. In my judgement, by shielding readers from words, it represents a change to the book that neither Smashwords nor our authors have authorized. Page Foundry responded immediately to my request and agreed to remove our books from the Clean Reader app in the next few hours.
I find it curious that when Kobo, Amazon, et al were pulling erotica in wholesale swathes during that panic in October 2013, Coker didn't raise similar objections to the censorship, and he didn't respond by pulling Smashwords titles from the Kobo or Kindle Stores.
Chew on that.
Several pieces stand out.
Jennifer Porter, for example, analyzed Clean Reader's filter and created a list of words which were filtered out. She also noted the words which the filter missed:
Interestingly, the following words are not considered profane: squirt, spurt, orgasm, goddamnit, horniness, semen, suck, condom, manhood, clit, nipple, Good Lord, God, erotic, half-assed, naked, sensual and sexual. And why are sexy and sex bad but not sexual?
She also pointed out that in some cases the filter made the story hilariously obscene:
The most egregious example of this is the fact that all words for female genitalia (vagina and pussy) are replaced with bottom. Take the following:
“Where shall I [freak] you, Victoria? Where do you want my [groin]?”
“I want it in . . . my [bottom].” from Jackie Ashenden’s Living in Secret
Apparently, all sex (which of course is a bad word itself) is actually anal sex (or bottom love) as vaginas are entirely erased by the Clean Reader app. I am willing to be that this wasn’t intentional but it makes a very profound and dismissive statement about female sexuality.
In spite of the app's deficiencies and questionable intentions, Cory Doctorow defended the app out of principle:
It's a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don't believe in free expression. That doesn't mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things. It's the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.
I think Clean Reader is stupid. I think parents who want to ensure that their kids don't see profanity have fucked up priorities.
I think readers should be allowed to skip my foreword and author bio. I think they should be able to search out their favorite passages and read them out of order.
I've made similar arguments when expressing support of erotica authors not being censored by Paypal, Kobo, or anyone. I'll admit, I hadn't considered making them in this case.
I also hadn't imagined that an author might take Charlie Stross's approach. He's planning to use inventive profanity in his future novels as a way of thwarting the app's filter:
While it might be possible to get my books pulled from that particular distributor, I am more inclined to deal with this idiocy by getting creative with my scatalogical vocabulary.
No more "fucks" freely interjected; instead I shall steal "unclefucker" from South Park.
No more "cunt!" as a free-standing gender-neutral insult[*]; instead it'll have to be "cuntfart!" or "pissflaps!" or "clunge!" (go look it up) ...
... But that's not going far enough.
I am pretty sure there's plenty of context in which the censorbot can be induced to fuck-up a perfectly clean paragraph beyond all recognition, simply by removing words delimited by whitespace. "Chimney-breast" for example, becomes "Chimney-chest". "The cunt line of the mainbrace" becomes "the bottom line of the mainbrace".
How far do you think I can take this?
Several other authors have raised objections, including Chuck Wendig.
- On Clean Reader (Ragged Feathers)
- Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters (terribleminds: chuck wendig)
- An e-mail from Clean Reader (Joann Harris)
- There is something called "Clean Reader" (Catdownunder)
As for me, I don't have an opinion. Porter has presented a convincing argument that the filter lacks the sophistication to fully understand what it is filtering. She's shown that it is ineffective to the point of being ridiculous.
That's enough for me to object on technical grounds, but I still say that if someone wants to use a broken filter then they are welcome to it.
I feel you're welcomes to use that broken filter just as much as you are welcome to use a browser plugin to filter the adverts out of a page, or to strip an article and reformat it for Instapaper or another service, or to change the formatting in an ebook so it is easier for you to read.
As I see it, folks, all of those filters only differ from Clean Reader as a matter of degree, not kind. They all change the work of the original creator at the will of the reader, so to accept them and reject Clean Filter is to say that one can only go far, and no further.
Drawing that kind of line is an artificial distinction, IMO. Every society does that, and societies (and individuals) often draw the line in different places. Who is to say that the line drawn by the authors is the right one, and not the line drawn by those who use this app?
Or at least that is my opinion when my ox wasn't the one which was gored. If I had skin in the game, I might feel differently.