Fair play and censorship. Where do you cross the line?

Fair Play

Two matters have struck a chord with me this week. The first is the cricket. The vice-captain of the Australian cricket team coached a bowler to roughen one side of the ball using sand paper, and the captain condoned it. It’s called ball-tampering and has happened in cricket over the years. This article explains in simple terms what it’s all about. In essence, there’s a line between fair handling of the ball, and ball tampering, which is cheating. The Australians crossed that line.

I expect many of you are sick of the whole thing, especially put in the context of what’s important in life. But I think it has to be considered against what Australians believe about themselves. As a sporting nation we punch above our weight, given our relatively small population, although we haven’t been quite as successful over the past decades. As a result, Australian teams are expected to win. Australians also have a perception that we Aussies are always fair, that we win by playing better. We’re also very quick to point the finger at other teams we suspect of cheating. So the cricket-loving public has been outraged by this overt cheating by an Australian team. Not just one player messing about with the ball, but a leadership plot to cheat.

It’s interesting to compare the two interviews Steve Smith gave about the matter. In the first one, just after the incident became public knowledge, the overall impression was shrug, we got caught. Sorry about that. Won’t happen again. He clearly did not appreciate the storm that was about to hit him.

When Smith appeared on the news last night the full horror of what he and Warner had cooked up had hit him. Sponsors have abandoned the team, all three have been sacked, and Warner and Smith banned for a time, they have lost personal sponsorships, as well as their contracts with the Indian IPL. Smith was chastened, in tears. I actually felt sorry for him. Smith, to me, has always looked like the top car salesman who is given the job of sales manager. The two jobs require very different skills. Smith is a great batsman, but not a leader. I’m not surprised at the news that Darren Lehmann has also resigned. If he didn’t know what was happening, he should have.

Shock jock commentator Alan Jones is not my favourite person for lots of reasons, but his open letter to Cricket Australia boss, James Sutherland, is balanced, sensible, and well worth reading. Apart from anything else, Jones has been coach of an Australian (rugby) team, so he knows a bit about what happens in a dressing room. For what it’s worth, having been initially rather like the Red Queen (off with his head) I now tend to agree with Alan Jones (please don’t tell him).

Australian cricket will always have to carry this stain on its reputation, just like the infamous underarm incident. Come what may, Cricket Australia has its work cut out to recover the trust of Australian cricket fans.

And now for something much more important.

Censorship.

I’ve spoken in the past about backdoor censorship, where book sellers refused to accept books with what they believed to be unacceptable erotic content. Censorship is stupid relates to a 2017 episode which led to Draft 2 Digital (a popular integrator for Indie authors like me, which formats books and sends them on to sales sites like Kobo and Amazon), tightening up its guidelines on ‘unacceptable’ content. And in The Vexed Question of Censorship in 2013 I waxed lyrical about censorship in general – and this:-

“Recently we had a case where Kobo withdrew ALL the indie (ie self-published or small publisher) titles sourced from Draft 2 Digital, a knee-jerk reaction to erotic material being made available for children. It was Dinosaur porn, you see, and everyone knows kids love dinosaurs. (rolls eyes) Plenty of people remarked on the hypocrisy of the table thumpers, pointing out that Fifty Shades of Grey was not withdrawn. It seemed erotica from large publishers was acceptable.”

What’s happening now is almost sinister. It seems Amazon is trawling through its titles, removing reviews and down-grading rankings for books with erotic content. The process is called ‘stripping’. The ostensible reason is the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or FOSTA, where internet sites can be prosecuted for allowing material that might promote prostitution (and no doubt other things). Read more about it here. My Facebook newsfeed is full of discussion by affected authors. For them, Amazon downgrading a book’s ranking and removing reviews means reducing that book’s visibility andtherefore  potential sales. It’s not just Amazon. I’ve mentioned the Kobo example, and Apple has always refused to sell what it deems to be unacceptable erotica or porn. It seems Google is in on it, too.

I accept that any book-seller has the right to dictate what they will or will not sell. But Amazon  and the other big sellers use automated programs, not people, to process the millions of titles they have on their sites. The results can be totally unfair and ugly. One author I know said, “My teenage books are stripped. Two teenagers falling in love, no sex, nothing freaky, just paranormal. No rank because it’s romance. It’s bloody bollocks.” Another author who normally writes science fiction romance had her perfectly innocent non-romantic Young Adult novel pulled because it had the word ‘sister’ in the book’s description. Presumably the automated process put that story down as incest. This reminds of an email filter management imposed at a place where I once worked to stop emails containing rude words being delivered. Any email with obvious swear words like ‘fuck’ were held. But it swept up possibly innocent words like ‘tit’ (as in blue tit) and allowed words like ‘dick’ and ‘cock’. Processing language is not a precise science.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. A couple of years ago Kobo had a similar purge, tightening up its rules on acceptable content. It’s interesting that these often-draconian measures are applied to writers of (erotic) romance, but any small author who has written romance novels might well be caught up in the ritualistic cleansing.

While Amazon prides itself on customer service, that doesn’t extend to authors. It never enters into discussion about decisions it makes. However, the online sales giant has stated that it is targeting romance titles, especially erotic stories. At least this time, it’s not just small Indies in the cross-hairs. Even EL James’s new books – Fifty Shades of Grey written from Christian Grey’s point of view – have been hit.

I don’t write erotica, let alone porn. (I wouldn’t know how.) I doubt any of my books would be affected, but nobody’s books should be censored in this way.

While we’re on the subject, it seems Microsoft has been forced to appoint itself arbiter of acceptability, as well. Its position is also based on the FOSTA legislation. You will probably have received an email from Microsoft explaining the new terms and conditions, which you very likely did not read. The new terms of service include this clause under Code of Conduct.

  1. Don’t publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity).

From there we proceed to what happens if you’re naughty.

  1. Enforcement. If you violate these Terms, we may stop providing Services to you or we may close your Microsoft account. We may also block delivery of a communication (like email, file sharing or instant message) to or from the Services in an effort to enforce these Terms or we may remove or refuse to publish Your Content for any reason. When investigating alleged violations of these Terms, Microsoft reserves the right to review Your Content in order to resolve the issue. However, we cannot monitor the entire Services and make no attempt to do so.

Microsoft to ban offensive language from skype xbox office and other services talks in more detail about what may or not may be affected by the changes, which come into force in May. But what it means for most of us is that if you write ‘fuck’ in an email, or use the word in a Skype call, Microsoft has the right to deny service. And if you write erotica and store the document on their One Drive system, they can delete it. However, as Microsoft makes clear, it does not intened to vet everything everbody writes. It can’t – the task would be beyond even that giant company’s resources. You’ll be safe – unless you’re ‘investigated’.

I THINK any requirements coming from the FOSTA bill are only appropriate in the US, since it is American law. But the global nature of the internet (in Western countries, anyway) means some of this stuff will rub off on us. I’ve heard that though the US Senate has approved the bill, it may be unconstitutional, in which case it’s likely to be bogged down in the courts. But even so, the damage will have been done. I don’t see the corporations removing their new requirements.

So much of this stuff is subjective. What one person calls a good sex scene is somebody else’s porn. That word “offensive” is so politically correct these days. I find gratuitous, graphic violence offensive, but that never seems to be targeted in these purges. Is ‘bugger’ a swear word? Will my books be banned because some character said ‘fuck’?

And to what end? How is any of this going to help prevent sexual trafficking or paedophiles?

I don’t know. I really don’t. Giant corporations, at the behest of the Government, set up as the arbiter of morals, telling people what they can and can’t write, what they can and can’t read, what they can and can’t say. That’s another line the US Government has crossed, and I don’t like it one bit.

Since we entered the twenty-first century, we seem to be going backwards in so many ways.

Makes me glad I’m 67, not 17.

It’s Easter. For some, it’s a particularly important Christian festival, for others, it’s a four-day long weekend, or a celebration of Spring. Whatever it means to you, enjoy the holiday.

4 thoughts on “Fair play and censorship. Where do you cross the line?

  1. Lea Kirk

    Excellent blog, Greta. It’s such a frustrating situation. I suspect FOSTA will be as incredibly effective as prohibition was in the States. (i.e. not at all)

    1. Greta Post author

      Thanks, Lea. Yes, a complete waste of time – and it’s sad that authors are the ones who pay the price.

  2. Marj

    A most interesting article. It makes me wonder what will happen to all those detective, murder mystery and thrillers if no violence or crime is permitted to be portrayed. Even my series of books about teenage boys who tend to swear. I was never very realistic in my attempts to write their dialogue, but I did put in some swear-words – it’s how boys talk. No sex, though, except in very restrained tones and almost always ‘off-screen’ as it were.

    1. Greta Post author

      Thanks, Marj. It always comes back to ‘where do you draw the line?’ And who draws it? Some faceless clerk in a Microsoft office?

      It always astounds me that playing hide the sausage is seen as reprehensible but graphic violence is deemed okay. And if the American Puritans are going to dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not… Give me strength.

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