Is US dominance of the internet – and particularly of the social networking space – leading to the export of US prudery across the globe? Or is the growing debate on international censorship a little more complicated? Jane Fae examines the issues.
10 October 2010
As Becky Dwyer, a US citizen and, as member of CAAN Scotland, a campaigner for less censorship in the UK put it: "Isn't this more about American Corporations forcing conformity upon private individuals rather than 'American' values?"
First off, examples of US social networking sites coming down hard on subscribers who fail to toe the line set by Ts & Cs are widespread.
Let’s start with global social networking site, Facebook. Readers will by now be more than familiar with its policy when it comes to boobs: namely that above-waist nakedness, if it appears to be in the least bit sexualised, is a definite no-no.
A similar issue arises over any group or image that might be deemed overly sexual, as Helena Hewitt, instigator of art and fashion project "Fetish Rocks" found out to her cost. Ms Hewitt was twice forced to rebuild her Facebook group from scratch following anonymous complaints.
The ailing MySpace, by contrast, seem more than happy to host her images.
Of course, sex isn’t the only thing that Facebook censors. It has issues with profane language – and obscene words like "twitter", too. More bizarrely, it recently blocked an ad by pro-cannabis campaign group "just say now" on the grounds that its use of an image of a cannabis plant breached its rules on endorsing smoking products.
If Facebook has occasional issues with individual depictions of the physical and erotic, Apple is even stricter. Back in February, Apple banned the iBoobs app for the iPhone on the grounds that too much wobbliness was distressing some customers.
Along the way, it has had run-ins with South Park and political cartoonists. More seriously, it appears to be crossing swords with some of the world’s largest media groups, as the tribute it demands for admission to the i-universe is the de-eroticisation of mainstream reporting. The Sun, the New Yorker and Bild have all hit back at Apple’s nanny corporatism.
Another major potential censor of the internet is Google, which prior to a recent and abrupt volte-face was happy to go along with the Chinese government’s restrictions on what their citizens could look for on the net. Ironically, of course, it could be argued that the original censorship was respectful of local politics, and the about-turn was not.
The search giant's refusal to screen an ad for the Australian Sex Party possibly represents more of a return to form.
Back then to the original question. There is no doubt that, where two cultures clash, the less powerful often finds its values rewritten to some extent by the more powerful. European attitudes to nakedness are, in general, less prudish than US values: but differences in approach to nude bathing between East and West Germans led to heated debate post-unification.
In film, it has long been argued that the sharing of a common language with the US has been Britain’s downfall. According to Jennie Kermode, editor of Eye For Film: "The domination of Britsh cinemas by films made in America is... threatening to create an ethical monoculture where the contesting of ideas - and therefore the capacity for growth - is lost."
The US corporate world therefore has great power – and that power should be wielded responsibly. However, it is probably unfair to accuse the US of across-the-board prudery: US courts have long been more supportive of commercial porn than UK ones and if Americans seem a tad more squeamish when it comes to bare flesh, they are far more resistant to attempts to censor speech.
The real heart of the debate can be seen in a recent decision by Craigslist to bow to state pressure, and temporarily "block" access to its adult services section. (It can also be seen in the somewhat loaded commentary that News International levels at Facebook, a competitor, compared to MySpace.)
Craigslist is a commercial enterprise, and therefore must tread more carefully than individuals – because being shut down, even temporarily, could be commercial death.
That sensitivity also leads to a growth in complaint culture, with many organisations preferring to take something down first, at the first sign of objection, rather than investigate: banning and blocking is usually the safer option.
This question is raised by Ms Dwyer, who spoke at length about an ongoing debate in the US in respect of First Amendment rights: "Is a corporation more like an individual, allowed to express their own opinions and run their private business as they please? Or are they more like the government, which needs to be restrained in its actions by checks and balances so that it does not infringe upon the rights of private individuals?"
Or is it simply, as editor of SomethingDark (NSFW) Daryl Champion suggests, that the real problem is "a new wave of Anglo-Saxon prudery, not just American, that appears to be on the rise in the major English-speaking countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
He goes on: "If concepts of personal freedom and social liberty were more ingrained in Anglo-Saxon culture, the agendas of moral minorities would not be so far advanced in either national governments or private sectors."
The question that I think key here is ‘hegemony’. What happens when two cultures overlap? What happens when one of those achieves global dominance? Google setting rules in China. West Germans and East Germans falling out over nude bathing. Both are good examples of this. And in the end, a big question is what happens when one cultural take on sexuality – an American meme that equates simple nudity with porn – is allowed to dominate significant chunks of the global debate on this topic.”
Jane Fae is a sexual rights activist in the UK and writer on the politics and psychology of sexuality. She is an ardent believer in the right of consenting adults to run their own sex lives without interference from Church or State – and has written at length on that topic, most recently as author of a book Beyond the Circle that argues against the British obsession with sex and against the use of protected characteristics as the basis for Equality Law.
This article first appeared on The Register.