Amazon Banning One Vile Ebook: A Victory For…. What Exactly?

Well, that was exciting wasn’t it? Less than 24 hours after we, and twenty billion other media outlets, reported on the presence of a “guide to pedophilia” on Amazon, it looks like the retail giant may have decided to withdraw it from sale.

If the reports are true then parents can sleep easy in their beds: with the removal of one putrid, misspelled ebook, the Internet is now completely free of pedophiles.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

I was going to leave this story alone. Partly I wanted to avoid the frothing ire of the “YOU’RE JUST DRAWING MORE PUBLICITY TO SOMETHING BAD” crowd (yes, drawing attention to bad things is what we’re supposed to do). Partly, too, I didn’t want to write another post that puts me at odds with my esteemed TechCrunch colleagues. Mainly, though, my reason for wanting to give the story a wide berth is because – for all the sound and fury over this sick, twisted little tome being on sale – I still haven’t heard anyone  adequately explain what all the fuss is about.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not asking what the fuss is about pedophilia – that’s an easy one, I hope – but rather I’m unclear what is achieved by forcing Amazon to ban a single disgusting ebook from sale. Or, indeed, what precise harm we think will result if they refuse.

Are we, as intelligent adults, really suggesting that other less intelligent adults who have until now never so much as considered the idea of molesting a child are going to download a copy of ‘the Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct’ and think to themselves “by golly, this pedophile stuff sounds like fun – I think I’ll give it a try?”. Surely not. If we’re concerned that a book glamourising man-child love is going to bring about the downfall of society then we’d better demand the removal of Lolita too. At least Nabokov could spell.

Maybe, then, those supporting the ban are concerned that the book might act as a dummies’ guide for the enthusiastic non-practicing pedophile: men who are already grotesque sexual deviants but haven’t yet figured out the practicalities of turning thought into action. If that’s the concern, then I fear that particular ship has sailed. I admit I haven’t looked – no-one needs that on their Google search history – but I’m pretty sure there’s enough of that kind of information available on the web that doesn’t require a potential child rapist to plunk down his credit card information and thus leave a paper trail back to his lair.

Or perhaps the concern is simply that the author is profiting from his vile fantasies. But then again, if that is the worry, maybe the YOU’RE DRAWING ATTENTION TO IT crowd has a point.

Before the book hit the headlines today, its author claims it had sold precisely one copy. After we, the media, had done our work, it had shifted enough units to make the top 100 list. That’s annoying, but does this mean the nation is about to be overrun by newbie pederasts? It seems unlikely: judging by the reviews of the book on Amazon, most purchasers ordered it only to determine the precise level of contempt they have for its author. By the end of the week it will have been forgotten about again and author Philip R Greaves II will return to his poverty; the only difference being that a few million people will know his name and the authorities will know to keep a very close eye on him, particularly when it comes to his proximity to schools.

And that’s exactly how things are supposed to work in a free society. Since the advent of the printing press –  hell, since the advent of speech – morons and criminals have used words to espouse their despicable views. Meanwhile, right thinking people have had the choice to either ignore those views or listen long enough to dismiss or demolish them in public forums. We make laws to protect against specific incitement and certain types of hate speech, but otherwise our ability to debate broader ideas – no matter how abhorrent we believe them to be – is what separates us from the apes.

Despite what some (including Amazon) have suggested, the company’s decision to pull Greaves’ “book” from their virtual shelves (if that’s what they’ve done) was neither censorship nor a curb on free speech, but rather a perfectly rational economic decision by a public company in response to a threatened boycott. And perhaps that alone is worth celebrating: however indirectly, Amazon was profiting from this vile little book (much as they do when they sell copies of Mein Kampf) – and now, it seems, they’re not.

But what the ban most certainly is not is an anti-pedophile victory of any meaningful kind, any more than YouTube’s decision (under pressure, in part, from the British government) to remove hate speech by Anwar al Awlaki was a particularly meaningful triumph in the war against terror. In fact, if either ban has achieved anything (and it probably hasn’t) it’s simply to drive another vile little man further underground, to join the thousands of other vile little men (and the occasional vile little woman) who ooze far below the surface of the Internet, in private chat rooms and IRC channels and password protected forums. Philip R Greaves’ fetid little fantasies haven’t been destroyed, but rather will now be added to the countless other sick fictions and how-tos – not to mention the far more troubling, and illegal, images and videos of actual criminal acts – that lie in the darkest corners of the web, away from the glare of public derision.

It’s that other material – the truly vile and illegal stuff, hidden from public view – that represents the true threat to the fabric of decent society. And it’s that material that we need to figure out how to banish from the Internet before we start congratulating ourselves on a job well done. Anything else is just a self-congratulatory meme. Misdirection accomplished.