Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Adventures in Censorship, Part II
This is a continuation of a minor side project of mine. To recap: I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a heavily conservative area. Earlier this year, their public library’s content filter started blocking the web site of my publisher, Siren-Bookstrand, on the grounds of “adult content.” Hey, I told the folks at the desk, I’m an adult. I’m a writer. I create some of that content you don’t want me to look at. I’m not even on the library’s computers. I’m looking at smut on the privacy of my own laptop. Is there any way a grownup can look at grownup sites at the public library?
Nope, they told me. It’s the computer system. It scans for certain key words. If those words come up, the site goes bye-bye. There’s nothing they can do. (Translation: “It’s not our fault.” No human being’s to blame. Funny how often that explanation comes up.)
Anyhoo, last month I was at a library outside of Lancaster County, and I got onto the Siren site just fine. In fact, I got onto several sites blocked by Lancaster County’s content filter. Which got me wondering: does this hold true all over? Do different counties in the same state—the same general geographic area—have different ideas of what constitutes objectionable material? Is what’s too “adult” for the goose in Lancaster County good for the gander in Chester?
Having nothing better to do, and as always looking for an excuse not to write, I decided to find out. I visited libraries in four of Lancaster’s neighboring counties: Dauphin, Chester, Berks and Lebanon. I attempted to log onto four erotic publishers’ sites: Siren, Loose Id, Liquid Silver, and the queen of dirty books, Ellora’s Cave. As a “control” I picked a site I know for sure is porn, even though it’s all prose and no pictures. Which content filters would let me on where?
Keep in mind all four of these publishers have their own content filters. They don’t publish anything that includes rape for titillation, underage sex, forced sex, bestiality (werewolves don’t count), necrophilia (vampires don’t count), incest or pseudo-incest, or fun with bodily functions. They do include actual plots and characters, things usually missing from true porn. It’s all consenting adults doing consensual things, all in words with no dirty pictures, not even the covers. I guess anyone under (or over) 18 isn’t deemed ready for that.
All five library systems blocked the actual porn site. So occasionally these systems do the job they were designed for. Good to know. On the other hand, all five systems let me onto a fan fiction site that contains stuff just as twisted, kinky and smutty as anything you’d find on the porn site, some of it written by the 14-year-olds the system is supposed to be protecting. The difference is the fanfic site doesn’t flash the key words the computer’s looking for, so it gets a pass. The same holds true for an artists’ site I know about, or Google Images, for that matter. You can access true porn on a library system if you know which sites to look for.
And now, on to the main event. How did the various content filters measure up?
Lancaster County, my stomping grounds, blocked everything. Like I said, I used to be able to get onto Siren, but that ended earlier this year. I was never able to get onto Ellora’s Cave. The system let me onto Liquid Silver’s home page, but wouldn’t let me navigate around the site. I can still get onto Samhain’s site without problems. I guess the computer hasn’t caught that one yet. Oddly, Siren’s Manlove site is still available, probably because nobody thought to program that word into the computer. I’m betting “erotic,” “erotica” or “erotic romance” are what’s dinging the system’s bells. The funny thing is, I can access Siren’s books on Amazon, so the same smut they’re blocking on one site is fully visible on another. How is that supposed to protect the children?
Dauphin County lets you look at anything. I accessed all four sites with no trouble. Dauphin’s the home of Harrisburg, the state capital, so maybe they’re more grown-up over there. Or maybe our state reps like to look at porno in public. I’ll have to write to my congressman and ask him about that.
Chester County blocked Siren, although the page told me I could still get on if I asked the librarian. It let me onto the other three without a blink of the screen. Yep, even Ellora’s Cave. Wonder what poor little Siren did to upset their content filter? Bet if they took that “erotic romance” label off their banner they’d slip through the crack just fine.
Berks County okay’d Siren and Loose Id but blocked Liquid Silver and Ellora’s Cave. Don’t know why. Were the former deemed less dirty? Are there different gradations of smut? Something must have hit the Berks computer’s early warning system on the latter two sites. Or maybe the computer just hasn’t gotten around to Siren and Loose Id yet. Or maybe nobody’s ever tried to access erotic romance publishers’ sites often enough for the computer to notice. I’ll address that in a sec.
Lebanon County let me onto everything except Liquid Silver. Again, I don’t know why. Liquid Silver is too adult but Ellora’s Cave isn’t? I suppose I could have asked the librarian in any of these cases, but I didn’t want to draw attention to these sites and risk them all getting blocked everywhere. I’m sure I’m not the only writer trying to research potential publishers and who doesn’t have Internet at home. I didn’t want to mess things up for anyone else.
Yeah, what about that? What about the innocent children these systems are supposed to be shielding from Da Smut? Chester County’s system said flat out they were acting in compliance with the Child Protection Act. Is the system working?
I see kids on computers all the time at my local library. Here’s what they’re doing: they’re playing games or they’re on Facebook or they’re watching videos or they’re—gasp!—doing legitimate research for homework assignments. One thing they’re not doing is trying to access erotica publishers so they can read the dirty bits. That’s what Mom’s paperbacks are for. Or 50 Shades of Grey, which is sitting right out there on the Walmart shelves for anybody to publicly flip through. In the last ten years we’ve only had one case of somebody accessing porn sites at the library that I’m aware of, and that was an adult. And me, trying to research possible markets.
Holy smokes! I’m the one the system is trying to protect from Da Smut!
While we’re on the subject of protection, here are some sites Lancaster County’s system did let me onto: how to build a pipe bomb (videos and written instructions); how to make homemade explosives; how to grow marijuana (indoors and outdoors); and a site selling automatic rifles. This was on the library’s own computers, not my personal laptop. The library system even deleted my browsing history for me when I was done, so the government can’t track me down. So if I ever want to buy a gun or build a bomb to blow up the library for not letting me onto the site that offers my own books for sale, I know right where to go to get the relevant info.
But hey, they’re keeping dirty books out of the hands and away from the eyes of The Children. That’s the important thing.
I think for Christmas I’m going to treat myself to home Internet through my cable TV provider. They’ve already assured me they don’t block anything and their office is right up the street so if problems arise I can go yell at a human being. In the meantime I can continue to get free WiFi at the local McDonald’s, which lets anyone look at anything, including flat-out porn. Plus you can get McNuggets. Can’t beat that with a stick.