Blown To Bits

A New Form of Internet Censorship

Sunday, November 30th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

I’ve been writing about Internet censorship, not just in Blown to Bits but in the Boston Globe (The Dangers of Internet Censorship). In a fascinating piece entitled Blacklisted in Cyberspace, James McGrath Morris describes a form of censorship I hadn’t encountered, consciously at least.

Morris publishes a monthly newsletter about the craft of writing biographies. Hardly sexy stuff, you’d think.

He runs his copy through a spam-checking software tool, to see if the spam filters of his recipients’ email servers or personal computers are likely to discard the newsletter before it is even delivered. He was shocked to discover that his last issue had a spam score that was through the roof. Why? I’ll quote:

Three sets of words among the issue’s many articles could derail my e-mail: a reference to “young adult,” a common classification for books intended for adolescent readers; a sentence in my editorial — “Speaking of legal matters, it’s getting nasty out there” — referring to the growing number of lawsuits; and a distinguished biographer’s discussion of writing a book for children that included the following comment: “At my public library I queried the children’s division librarian — what works, what does not, who is ‘hot.'”¬†The inclusion of “young adult,” “getting nasty” and “hot” among the thousands of words in my publication was like poison.

What’s an author to do? “Write around” these everyday phrases to satisfy the demands of the spam-checking software? Perhaps — but if the next release of the software is even more censorious, where would it end?

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