Sunday, July 01, 2018

Obscenity: The Invisible Line

Many publishers and retailers have a vague and unhelpful definition of material deemed too offensive to sell.  Amazon for example says: "What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect."  As if it has even been easy to know what people--or the hypothetical average person--would, should, or would publicly claim to find offensive.

The lack of specificity has a purpose, it prevents rules-lawyers from engineering their material to comply while still including material likely to outrage customers or potentially lead to an obscenity lawsuit.  But the vagueness that baffles the scammers is equally confusing to honest content providers and sometime the retailers own staff.

The most recent example is the leading distributor of online games, Steam, which issued and then retracted notices that certain games were overly pornographic. A few days later Steam leadership seemed to indicated that they would take a step back from blocking pornographic content at all.

This whole issue, be it one Steam, or Amazon, or a high end art gallery, hangs on the US definition of obscenity and pornography which on one hand states that interest in sex itself is not obscene but on the other has only a handful of precedents to say what material does cross the line and so is illegal to distribute.

In reality US mainstream culture predominantly continues to consider sexually explicit content itself morally unacceptable, and most companies seem to want to abdicate from the responsibility of preventing access by minors or dealing with push-back religious customers and lobby groups. These lobby groups who obscure their goal to suppress all sexually-explicit entertainment on the basis of their own religious morality under names such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formally "Morality in Media).

Sexually explicit content is not an easy subject for creators and distributors to deal with.  The unanswered question remains--will it be managed based on evidence and a secular ethical-legal frame work, or from a messy tug-of-war between religious extremists and rampant capitalism that disregards the risks of promoting extreme material even to children.  Companies like Steam need to decide what they actually believe in and hold that line, not just surrender to whatever group is currently complaining the loudest.

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