Net Censorship Goes Bananas
Published with the permission of the author.
Chapter 1 of Linda Jaivin's book Eat Me is available online
When my novel Eat Me was published in the U.S., I had an extraordinary experience of internet censorship.
Eat Me is a comic erotic novel about the sexual adventures and fantasies of four women friends living in Sydney. It is sexually explicit but contains no violence. Its attitude towards sexuality is celebratory, non-judgmental and fits into the general category of sex-positive feminism.
It was on the Australian best-seller list here for seven months, has been translated into something like nine languages by respectable publishers, has been reprinted several times in the U.K. under the Vintage imprint and has done very well in the U.S. in both hardcover and paperback editions. It's had very positive reviews in everything from Entertainment Weekly to the L.A. Times and the London Observer. I mention this only to make the point that despite its racy content, Eat Me has been accepted by mainstream readers and reviewers around the world.
When Eat Me first came out in the U.S. in 1997, the publisher, Broadway Books, invited me to do a book tour. Among the bookshops where I read from Eat Me was San Francisco's independent Booksmith in Haight-Ashbury. After the reading, the Booksmith posted on their website the cover of the book (the U.S. edition's cover -- an upright banana with two plums at its base, won several national book design awards), a brief and entirely non-explicit summary of the book, and a short, humorous description of my performance.
An organisation called Cyberpatrol, which censors the web on behalf of many American libraries, schools and so on, promptly banned the ENTIRE Booksmith website. The Booksmith, while not a large shop physically, has a thriving internet business, so this was potentially a huge blow. Cyberpatrol told the Booksmith that the only way they would un-ban the site would be if they removed all reference to me and my book, or posted that information on a separate site with no links to their main site. The Booksmith people were fantastic. They refused to be censored, or bullied, and stood up to Cyberpatrol, mounting a whole campaign against net censorship that got tremendous publicity and coincided with Banned Books Week, until in the end, Cyberpatrol backed down.
In the ensuing debate, which ran hot on the internet for some time afterwards, a number of interesting points were made. Organisations like Cyberpatrol may ban websites for any number of reasons, including political ones, though you may never find out what these are, as they are not publicly accountable for everything they do, despite their incredible influence over public access to information. They tend even to ban sites that list banned books or banned sites.
Perhaps it wasn't just the bananas that got to Cyberpatrol -- perhaps it was the book's obvious message (reinforced by the Booksmith's description of my tongue-in-cheek use of props like strawberries and a little whip) of women taking charge of their own sexuality and having fun with it. We may never know. Nor do organisations like Cyberpatrol make a habit of backing down or giving in (and you can't always count on having allies with as much moral backbone as the Booksmith people), so I suspect that most stories don't end as positively as mine did.
The other point is, even in the U.S., people and organisations can choose to subscribe to a net censor like Cyberpatrol. That means that even when they banned the Booksmith, if you had your own computer, you could still log on. In Australia, with the new legislation, that won't be possible. Debate on the issue itself could be stifled -- will they ban the list of banned sites here too?
We must fight this battle on every front. Make every case a test case.