It’s a pretty hard and fast rule that whenever a headline asks you a question, the answer will prove to be “no”. Take, for example, today’s headline on UK tech news site, The Register: “Is US prudishness ruining the internet?”
With that rhetorical hook, Jane Fae Ozimek wonders out loud whether the dominance of sites like Facebook – which famously banned (briefly) photographs of breastfeeding women – means that we’re all soon going to struggle to enjoy the majesty of human biology.
She also shares the tribulations of one Helena Hewitt, “instigator of art and fashion project “’Fetish Rocks’ who was “twice forced to rebuild her Facebook group from scratch following anonymous complaints”. And what of the “pro-cannabis campaign group ‘Just Say Now’ [banned] on the grounds that its use of an image of a cannabis plant breached its rules on endorsing smoking products.”? Or Apple’s censoring of the iBoobs app? Or Google’s refusal to screen an ad for the ‘Australian Sex Party’ (or ‘Earls Court’ as its known in London).
Ozimek goes on to liken the digital export of American neo-Victorianism to the similar dominance of the US over European cinema, but in the end her argument peters out. She mentions the censoring of adult services on Criagslist but also admits that, post-unification, the East German’s taste for public nudity was cause for consternation amongst West Germans. Solid conclusions draws she none, settling on the no-shit proposition that “the less powerful often finds its values rewritten to some extent by the more powerful”. Her overarching thesis is clear though: America is prudish, America controls the most popular internet services, ergo America is making the Internet prudish.
Two days I wrote a column here on TechCrunch about how I love America’s first amendment, but how it doesn’t apply to private websites. It’s too soon for me to cover that ground again. And yet, as I read, and kept reading, Ozimek’s post, looking for the smoking – uh – gun that never came, I found myself getting more and more irritated, and more keen to defend my adoptive home.
America’s prudishness is a European meme that irks me almost as much its cousin: the “American’s don’t understand irony” meme. This is the same America that brought the world The Onion, The Daily Show, Tom Lehrer and Mark Twain.
The truth is that big American sites do censor content, sometimes hilariously so: this week Microsoft booted a kid from their XBox Live platform when he mentioned on his profile that he’s from Fort Gay, West Virginia (he is). But here’s something that’s also true: eight years ago, I created a website, called ‘Think Of The Children’ which parodied the media hysteria (at the time) over alleged paedophiles living in our midst. A few days later, my hosting company – Host Europe (note that second word, no Americans there) – closed the site down after the police contacted them to say they’d received complaints from people who were offended. In America that level of police interference simply couldn’t happen (at least not without a first amendment shit-storm).
As for the question of whether American standards are more prudish than British or European ones, how about when – two years after the Think Of The Children incident – the BBC very generously wrote about The Friday Thing, a satirical weekly email I used to edit. And then a week after posting the story, they removed the link to our site because we’d added a story to the front page, titled “Fuck Off Mr Chips” (slightly broken link: here). The editor at the BBC was very apologetic but explained, “our audience don’t like that word.”
And therein lies the point. It’s not that America is more prudish than Europe, it’s that big companies – or websites or news organisations – are more prudish than small ones. It’s a choice those services willingly make: censoring words, images and ideas which fall outside the lowest common denominator boundaries of the majority of their millions of users. It doesn’t matter whether those users are America or British or Belgian or Martian – very few people will abandon a publication or a site because of content that *doesn’t* appear, but millions might because of what *does*. It’s the media version of the old corporate maxim: no-one ever got fired for saying no.
The reason why American sites appear more prudish has to do with availability bias: America is home to the vast majority of the largest sites in the western world. If Facebook were based on London it’d be just as censorious as the BBC. Same goes for Google or MySpace or YouTube or any other mass-market property.
But here’s what’s heartening about America. Unlike Europe and particularly the UK, the US isn’t hamstrung by draconian libel laws (especially not after title 28 of the United States Code was amended to prevent US courts upholding foreign libel verdicts), nor can the state interfere with free speech (EU law is supposed to grant similar protection to citizens of member states, but no one appears to have told the police in those states). As a result, American entrepreneurs are much more free to create sites in response to market demand rather than government pressure (as Mike points out here, even the Craigslist decision was a popular one, not a legal one).
For every Facebook group that gets closed down, there are a thousand active Tumblrs full of hardcore porn (trust me, if breast feeding’s your thing, you’re golden). For every YouTube there’s a Redtube; for every Google, there’s a Chilling Effects.
American has come a long way since Lenny Bruce. Today, more than most other countries in the world, the USA boasts both extreme freedom of choice when it comes to “offensive” content and also a population big enough to render even the most offensive speech commercially viable. Indeed, “Prudish America” may have introduced linguistic atrocities like “restroom” and “vajayjay” to the popular lexicon but the land of the free also gave us – and popularlised through sites like Urbandictionary.com – the “nip slip” and the “camel toe”, not to mention two girls one cup (made by a Brazilian but popularised through American sites and TV shows) and snakes on a motherfucking plane.
If US dominance of the Internet is having any effect, it’s in spreading those choices to the rest of the world: widening the range of ways in which everyone – no matter where they live – might choose to be offended. God bless it for that.