In furor over rape and incest porn, ebook retailers aren’t the only ones to blame

Gigaom

The U.K. media is in an uproar over rape and incest porn ebooks that popped up in searches on sites like Amazon and Kobo. In response, WHSmith took down its entire site over the weekend, and on Tuesday Kobo — which powers ebook sales through WHSmith’s site — announced that it is pulling all self-published books from its own U.K. website while it addresses the problem.

The ebooks in question have titles like Daddy Daughter Sex Stories and Daddy’s Birthday Gang Bang.

The saga started last week, when U.K. tech site The Kernel published a post entitled “How Amazon Cashes In on Kindle Filth.” Various U.K. newspapers, including the Daily Mail and Guardian, picked up the story. In the following days, The Kernel has continued to pump out posts on the issue, with titles like “An epidemic of filth” and the link bait-y “The five most disgusting titles for sale at Amazon” and “Do we need to show Amazon where all the rape porn is?”

The U.K. media’s outrage has been almost solely aimed at ebook retailers like Amazon and Kobo. Yet some self-published authors also deserve blame for using wily techniques to circumvent the retailers’ existing filters and to ensure that some of the most objectionable titles pop up in searches.

Kobo: “Reviewing our policies and procedures to implement safeguards”

The offending self-published ebooks were available through all major ebook retailers, not just Kobo. Amazon hasn’t commented on the controversy but has removed some of the titles called out by The Kernel from its site. Kobo has been more open about how it’s addressing the problem. It issued an updated statement on Tuesday:

“As you may be aware, there has been a significant amount of negative attention in the UK regarding offensive material that became available across a number of ebook platforms. Kobo is taking immediate action to resolve this issue which is a direct result of a select few authors and publishers violating Kobo’s content policies.

In order to address the situation Kobo is taking the following steps:

1. We are removing titles in question from the global Kobo platform.

2. We are completing a thorough review to ensure that compliance to our policies is met by authors and publishers.  As a result we are quarantining and reviewing additional titles.

3. During this process, we have removed all self-published titles from the UK store. We expect titles that comply with our policy to be returned to the store within the week.

4. We are reviewing our policies and procedures to implement safeguards that will ensure this situation does not happen in the future.

We are working hard to get back to business as usual, as quickly as possible.

Our goal at Kobo is not to censor material; we support freedom of expression. Further, we want to protect the reputation of self-publishing as a whole. While some may find our measures extreme, we are confident that we are taking the necessary measures to  ensure the exceptions that have caused this current situation will not have a lasting effect on what is an exciting new channel that connects readers to a wealth of books.”

WHSmith: “Inappropriate books can never be shown again”…

U.K. bookstore chain WHSmith, which sells ebooks through its website in a partnership with Kobo, is taking even more extreme measures: It’s taken down its entire website. In place there is a holding page that reads, in part:

“Our website will become live again once all self published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available. When our website goes back online it will not display any self published material until we are completely confident that inappropriate books can never be shown again.”

…good luck with that

It’s unclear how WHSmith can ensure that “inappropriate books can never be shown again” on its website. Setting aside for now the questions of free speech and what, exactly, porn is (and all of these ebooks are legal for now), ebook retailers have largely shown themselves incapable of fully policing the self-published content that’s uploaded to their sites.

In addition, certain self-published authors have employed tricks to stay ahead of the filters that the retailers do have in place.

Retailers obviously carry some of the responsibility for not having better filtering processes to remove these titles from their sites — or prevent them from being published there in the first place. Amazon’s guidelines for the Kindle self-publishing platform say that “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” Spend two minutes searching the Kindle Store for porn and you’ll realize that’s a total joke.

But the problem isn’t just the retailers. The authors of some of the most objectionable rape and incest titles have often employed tricks when uploading these titles to ensure that retailers’ filters don’t catch them. And by tweaking the ebooks’ metadata — labeling a book about a father who rapes his daughter as a children’s book, for instance — they can take advantage of the filters that are supposed to work against them.

“It seems  (and we’re still investigating at Bowker, though I quite frankly don’t expect to find much in our own data because I’d bet that the authors who are doing this are not exactly fans of best practices) that these authors are assigning children’s (and possibly other) categories to their porn books,” Laura Dawson, product manager at SelfPublishedAuthor.com and Identifier Services at RR Bowker — in other words, she is the queen of metadata for books — told me in an email. She elaborated:

“There’s little a retailer can do about this — essentially, it boils down to the authors not telling the truth about their books. Policing that is hard when you’re dealing with tens of millions of titles…algorithms that can get you part of the way there, but clearly there also needs to be some penalty for spam-tagging. This was obviously malicious (and I don’t use that word lightly — misdirecting readers is exactly that) and deliberate.”

Authors have also stayed ahead of ebook retailers’ filters simply by changing their books’ titles and descriptions. One ebook, for instance, was originally titled In Too Deep with My Daughter. By Tuesday, the ebook’s author — “Kelsey Charisma” — had changed its title simply to In Too Deep and added a note in the book’s description to “Be aware of the title, cover and/or description change. Please see inside book for former title.” It remains for sale on Amazon’s UK website.

If ebook retailers truly want no porn to be sold through their sites, they’ll have to spend much more time and money than they do now implementing both automatic and human filters.

They’ll also have to clarify exactly what they mean by porn, and in doing so they’ll risk alienating many authors and readers. The book industry reaped massive profits from the bestselling erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. If that’s okay, but other porn isn’t — if, for instance, child rape porn is unacceptable — retailers will have to be much more explicit in publicly declaring what is and isn’t acceptable. They’ll then have to employ humans to ferret out offending books and keep those books’ authors from reposting them under different titles or descriptions. And that is likely to be more than a full-time job.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Lucie Lang




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