The importance of being naked

A short column for Prospect, looking at censorship in digital publishing; first published June 2010

James Joyce and Oscar Wilde are in trouble over obscenity. It reads like a headline from the 1920s, yet this was a topic making headlines in June 2010, when it emerged that a graphic novel adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses and a second graphic novel inspired by Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest had both fallen foul of Apple’s squeaky clean regulatory policy. Their releases on the iPad required last-minute amendments thanks to the existence of nude (cartoon) images in the Joyce and a homosexual (cartoon) fantasy scene in the Wilde.

Thanks in part to online protest, both apps have now been allowed to resubmit their original content. But, coming off the back of the incident in December 2009, when Apple (temporarily) banned an app by cartoonist Mark Fiore because it “ridiculed public figures,” it’s clear that censorship—an issue many readers considered as dead as Joyce and Wilde—is raising its head once again.

Digital censorship is an interesting conundrum, not least because it invokes another debate that many people haven’t paid serious attention to for some time: when is something artistically or intellectually valid, and when is it merely pornographic or gratuitous?

Most people accept that Apple has the moral and legal right to filter the content available via its digital store. As well as a certain level of quality, consumers expect that apps will perform as advertised, won’t be packed with hate speech or hardcore porn, and won’t rip off or deceive their users. But what about naked bodies, or politically controversial arguments, or, say, cartoons lampooning certain religions?

Courts, customers and philosophers can mull these queries all they like; but the only opinions that really matter are those of the companies controlling increasingly large parts of the world’s digital infrastructure. Apple is picky, Google famously less so. Yet there is nothing inevitable about either the one’s restrictions nor the other’s openness. And it may be no bad thing to be reminded that, when it comes to next-generation media, it’s important to keep fighting some very old new battles.