The New Censorship: Clean Reader and the Dystopian Future of Reading

Clean Reader, a new censorship app dreamed up by a couple of despotically hokey parents from Idaho, is now facing a backlash. If you’ve somehow missed the story up to this point, it’s fairly straightforward: Jared and Kirsten Maughan from Twin Falls came up with the idea for the app after their daughter complained about some swear words in a book she was reading. So they did what any healthy Christian family would do: they tried to cash in. The product? An app with three censorship settings: clean, cleaner, and squeaky-clean.

The app more or less takes any e-book and expunges any naughty language. As a result, journalistic descriptions of the Clean Reader app take on the character of a child learning how to curse. Here, in one of my favorite paragraphs in the English language, the Guardian outlines the app’s bowdlerizations:

Profanities such as “fucking” and “fucker” became “freaking” and “idiot”, “hell” became “heck” and “shit” became “crap”, according to an analysis of the app by Jennifer Porter. It was not only swear words that Clean Reader scrubbed out of books: Porter, who ran a series of romance novels through the app, found that body parts were also replaced. “Penis” became “groin”, “vagina” was swapped for “bottom” and “breast” changed to “chest”. Exclamations such as “Jesus Christ” became “geez”, “piss” became “pee”, “bitch” became “witch” and “blowjob” was switched with the euphemistic “pleasure”.

Or, for a more specific explanation of what the app does, see this amazing statement from the Clean Reader PR contact:

As for how we deal with context, the app does look for specific sequences of letters lick cock, shit, or f–k. But it also requires white space on both sides of the word. So your example of cockapoo would not be blocked by the app. But cock a poo would have cock blocked. There will be times when the app blocks a word that isn’t being used as a profanity. Jesus Christ is another example. If a reader is reading the Bible with Clean Reader there will be quite a lot of words blocked; hell, damn, ass, Jesus, etc.

Writers everywhere are spitting and cursing. Chocolat author Joanne Harris, perhaps the most infuriated of the lot, said “fuck you” to the app in a post titled, “Why I’m Saying ‘Fuck you’ to Clean Reader”:

Apps like Clean Reader change the text without the author’s permission. They take the author’s words and replace them – sometimes very clumsily – on the basis of some perceived idea of “bad words” versus “good words”. No permission is sought, or granted. There is no opt-out clause for authors or publishers. This is censorship, not by the State, but by a religious minority…

Even Margaret Atwood is pissed. Yesterday she tweeted:

Could you take the kettledrums out of Beethoven because you don’t like loud noises and still call it Beethoven? #CleanReader

Yes, but is it legal? Some are inveighing against Clean Reader on the basis of the author’s moral rights. Oppositely — and predictably — Cory Doctorow has defended the app on libertarian grounds:

It’s one thing for a publisher or retailer to send out copies of your books in which words are changed around without your permission. It’s another thing altogether for the reader themself to decide to read their legally acquired books in such a way as to change the text.

Although Doctorow makes clear that he still thinks the app is “stupid”:

I think Clean Reader is stupid. I think parents who want to ensure that their kids don’t see profanity have fucked up priorities.

It would seem that the law is with Doctorow on this one. In the UK and France, just to name two countries that actually respect their artists and writers, moral rights protect the ownership and integrity of the author’s work. In the U.S., on the other hand, we have no prevailing legal protection for moral rights. The closest thing we have is a patchwork of consumer protections and the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which extends only to works of visual art. Why? Because of our longstanding preoccupation with the free market. Here’s Mira T. Sundara Rajan, Professor of Intellectual Property Law at the University of Glasgow, from the book Moral Rights:

In contrast to other jurisdictions, where copyright might be seen as part of a framework for individual rights or human rights, American copyright law is an engine of the free market — a monopoly that is tolerated only insofar as it “promote[s] the progress of science and useful arts.

And it’s on this basis — the attempt to sell books in conjunction with the censorial app — that Clean Reader may have finally been defeated. This week Inktera, which provided the bookstore system for the app, pulled its technology. And Smashwords, the e-book distributor, pulled its books from the app’s store.

But without robust moral rights legislation to defend authors and their work, we may see an increase in similar techno-literary legal quandaries. For example, what’s to stop a tyrannical conservative governor from implementing Clean Reader in schools? And, given that e-books are not technically objects but software licenses, who’s to say the future of digital reading won’t be instant censorship at the push of a button? Clean Reader may be down for the count now, but it may also be the sad future we want to avoid.