TMW Conference Report

I spent most of today at a London conference organized by Trans Media Watch. It proved to be very useful for a number of reasons, and also quite interesting. Here are a few highlights.

The first panel got a bit derailed when Sky, the young person from the National Union of Students, mentioned gender-neutral toilets. Let me explain why this is a potentially contentious issue. I’m very much in favor of gender-neutral toilets being provided as a third option for people who don’t identify as either male or female for whatever reason, or who lack the confidence to use bathrooms provided for their preferred gender. I’m also mostly happy with gender-neutral toilets being the only option in most cases (as indeed is commonly the case in cafes, trains, aircraft and private homes), though I appreciate the need for women-only spaces as places of refuge in venues such as pubs and clubs where drunk men may behave badly. Where it gets problematic is if the provision of gender-neutral toilets suddenly results in all trans people being told that they must use them, even if, like Roz and myself, we’ve been happily using the bathrooms provided for our preferred gender for decades. I spoke to Sky during the coffee break, and they assured me that there was no intention of forcing anyone to use gender-neutral toilets against their wishes. In those circumstances I have no objection to people continuing to press for their provision.

The second panel was about the situation in Europe. I was delighted to see delegates present from Germany, Switzerland and Italy (and possibly a few other countries as well), alongside the usual crowd from Britain and Ireland. Thanks in particular to Alecs from TGEU for providing suggestions as to how I might contact trans activists in Ukraine so that I can make an informed decision regarding whether to attend next year’s Eurocon.

Finally we had a panel on regulation of the media featuring lawyer-journalist David Allen Green and Guy Parker of the Advertising Standards Authority. Generally speaking it is very hard to regulate the media, especially if you wish to maintain freedom of speech, and given the ease of publication afforded by the Internet. However, I suggested to the panel that a useful option might be to make newspapers responsible for the content of comment threads on their websites. To my delight, David agreed with me. Personally I think that one of the most useful things that the Leveson Inquiry could do is make the likes of the Daily Malice moderate their comments for hate speech, because that would mean they would no longer have a reason to post “news” that is nothing more than troll bait (for example this).

Anti-Rights Grab Day

I guess it is entirely typical of the Internet that today, when people are supposed to be protesting against a very dangerous proposed law, that my Twitter feed is full of people arguing over whether the protest is being carried out in the right way, or making jokes about Wikipedia. We are very easily distracted monkeys. Well, none of the sites I run have gone dark today, which doubtless makes me a villain in some quarters. Equally, I’m just about to write about SOPA, which will make me a boring killjoy in the eyes of others. Before deciding how to be outraged, however, please take some time to read the following.

Debates about proposed restrictive laws often founder on the argument of “it couldn’t happen to me”. It’s the “first they came for the X, but I was not an X” problem. The chances are that most of you won’t be directly affected. You’ll be indirectly affected because the choice of websites that you have access to, and the type of posts you can make on social media sites, will change drastically, but you are unlikely to be sued. That’s not the case for me. As far as I’m concerned, it will be only a matter of time before SOPA shuts down my publishing and book-selling business. Here’s why.

At the end of last year I wrote about a law case in the US under which HarperCollins (a division of News International) is trying to claim that it owns the ebook rights to every paper book it publishes, whether the contract mentions ebooks or not. As I predicted, this is already affecting my business. Publishers are doing their best to frighten authors off self-publishing their back catalogs in ebook form. Mostly they don’t have any intention of publishing the ebooks themselves, they just want to grab as many rights as they can, just in case.

However, if a publisher does want to stop an author selling ebook rights then currently they have to go to court, as HarperCollins are doing. Under SOPA they won’t have to. They can just state that their copyright is being infringed, and shut down any ebook publisher or bookseller that dares to deal with the titles.

Currently my author and retail contracts ask the author or publisher to attest that they have the rights to the material that they are asking me to publish or sell. Under SOPA that’s not enough. To be fully compliant I would have to undertake an expensive copyright check on every book I publish and sell. And I do mean every book. Under current laws if it turns out that something I’m selling has rights issues then I can take it down, which I’d be happy to do. Under SOPA there only has to be one, unsubstantiated, complaint and my entire website can be taken offline. And because SOPA is predicated on the idea that ordinary citizens are guilty until they can afford an expensive lawyer to prove them innocent, I’d have no chance of challenging this. Indeed, SOPA is written in such a way that the mere act of questioning whether a complaint is justified or not would expose me to the prospect of far worse penalties than simply giving up and closing my business. (See Mashable for the gory details.)

Now you may think that publishers simply wouldn’t bother with someone small like me. What’s in it for them? But that’s not the problem. The problem is that anyone who loses a SOPA case becomes liable for damages, and to pay the legal costs of the company that lodges the complaint. So the publishers don’t need to do anything. Very soon enterprising lawyers will be devoting their time to hunting around the Internet looking for potential victims, and encouraging complaints against them. If the victim shuts down, there is very little cost. If the victim fights then the lawyer has a nice piece of business that will probably cost the publisher nothing. It will be like the “sue companies for liability for accidents” business, except this time it will the companies who benefit and the little guys who get taken to the cleaners.

If you still think it won’t happen, here’s something to chew on:

To Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”, this is par for the course in America’s federal justice system today. A couple of trends have combined to threaten justice and liberty. First, federal statutes are often so poorly written and so vague that they are in effect incomprehensible. This gives excessive discretion to bureaucrats and prosecutors, with their own career ambitions, who apply them haphazardly.

Second, federal law has been moving away from mens rea (“guilty mind”), a common-law tradition that suggests that a person who had no idea he was breaking a law should not be accused of doing so. With bloated federal legislation and without mens rea you can accuse most people of something or other, says Mr Silverglate. The question should be, he says, whether charges are reasonable when they run “counter to all human instinct and experience”.

That’s nothing to do with SOPA, and it isn’t some ranting lefty who is complaining. It is from an article in The Economist, and the case is about a marine biologist filming orcas.

If that sort of thing worries you, and really it should, please use some of that spare time you have from not reading Wikipedia (hah!) to lodge a protest. WordPress has helpful links for people both inside and outside the US, and an informative video.

Editorial Skullduggery

Because of my involvement with the SF&F Translation Awards I keep up with general news about literary translation. One of the best blogs for this is Chad Post’s Three Percent. Today he posted a rather disturbing story about the Best European Fiction 2011 anthology published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Dalkey is one of the leading publishers of translated fiction in the English-speaking world, so this is a very high profile publication. They are also the English publishers of Tove Jansson, which makes this story even more odd.

One of the stories chosen for the anthology was “My Girlfriend” by Croatian writer, Mima Simić. She arranged for the translation herself, including copy editing by English-speaking friends. Nothing was said to her by Dalkey about editing, so she assumed that her friends had done a good job. Mima was therefore horrified to receive the final book and discover that the gender of her narrator, deliberately left unspecified in the original and her translation, had been altered by Dalkey to make the story unambiguously heterosexual. As a lesbian, and a gender-theorist, Mima is understandably upset at having her story “straightened”.

As I noted above, the fact that Dalkey also publishes Tove Jansson suggests that there is no company policy against LGBT material. However, this could be the work of one editor deciding to oppose his or her views on Mima’s story. Alternatively it could be someone deciding that gender ambiguity is too difficult a concept for readers and that the story had to be simplified for publication. For a high profile literary publisher like Dalkey that would almost be more embarrassing.

You can read Mima’s story in her own words on Chad’s blog.

Linkage Ho!

Hmm, teh intrawebs appear to have been busy of late.

– The European Union has caught up with the fact that Wikipedia articles can tell lies about you and there’s nothing you can do about it. There is muttering about legislation.

– At Knowledge Problem Mike Giberson reports on the power of anecdote. Kevin and I are often frustrated at how often fannish online debate is derailed by someone insisting that something that is generally agreed to be broadly correct must be utterly false because his personal experience contradicts it. The UK press commented on how often the participants in the leader debates during the election used personal anecdotes (“I met someone who…”) to make policy points. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have decided to study this problem, designing an experiment to test the power of anecdote to overcome statistical evidence. To make it tough for the anecdotes they used accountants as their subjects, and yet the anecdotes still proved more powerful. Human beings are scary creatures.

– In Barcelona researchers are using virtual reality to put men’s minds into women’s bodies. Quick, someone grab Rush Limbaugh and stick him on a plane to Spain.

– Forbidden Planet International points me to a Financial Times article about the current state of the Tintin franchise. Ignore the gossip and scroll down to the sorry tale of Bob Garcia who has been fined €50,000 for publishing small-press books about Tintin. French fans have an appeal going to help Bob pay. You can find them on Facebook.

– Anil Menon has posted a long and thoughtful essay about the Ramayana on his blog.

– It may be only 1mm long, but the copepod is the strongest and fastest animal in the world.

Yet More Linkage

Because I have spent most of today on Day Jobbery.

– Joe Gordon reports on a BBC story about a supposed real-life Glasgow vampire that caused massive moral panic and led to censoring of comics.

– Justine Larbalestier has a tribute to the brilliant and sadly missed Alexander McQueen. (Go on, click through, just look at those fabulous dresses!)

– Space Ship Two has successfully completed its maiden flight. (And Virgin Galactic reports that they have sold over 330 tickets for flights.)

– And finally, a horrific tale of a mother of five from Durban whose life has been destroyed because prison authorities mistook her for a transsexual.

Linking Again

Because I should be packing for P-Con and doing the day job.

– An interesting statement by Christopher Handley’s lawyer on the subject of obscenity and manga, and why they chose to plead guilty.

– A great article on fear being the enemy of gender equality (thanks Nnedi!).

– A suggestion that the iPad is the Wii of the tablet market. Actually the thing I found most interesting about this is that if you go into a computer games shop in the UK all of the effort goes into selling XBox and PS3 games, with the Wii stuff hidden away in a small corner. That’s odd if Wii is easily the top-selling console. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be buying an iPad until it has the eye-friendly Kindle-style screen. The iPhone hurts my eyes quite enough.

– Peter Tennant of Black Static takes the opportunity to show that not all male horror fans are sexist. Nice piece of PR by TTA Press there, which is another reason why it is important to apologize well.

For A Change, Some FacebookFail

Amongst the many things clamoring for my attention this morning was the news from Finland that Facebook has closed down the fan page for Iron Sky, the sci-fi comedy film about Nazis on the moon. Apparently someone, either at Facebook or making a complaint, has got it into their heads that the film is pro-Nazi propaganda. That’s right up there with the crazy conspiracy theorists who mistook Iron Sky’s clever spoof newspaper, The Truth Today, for actual proof that a Nazi base had been discovered on the moon.

Of course, this being Facebook, punishment was meted out without any attempt to contact the accused or explain why they had been published, and thus far Facebook as not responded to requests for dialog. There’s a protest group on Facebook here, and bizarrely a couple of fan groups about the film are still up. It is only the film’s official fan page that has been taken down.

Update: Success! The Iron Sky fan page is back. See here for a rather inadequate apology from Facebook.

Brief Linkage

I’m busy catching up with all of the Google Reader entries I accumulated while I was traveling. Here are a few highlights.

UK libel laws are so infamous that people with something to hide come here from all over the world to make money from suppressing free speech. Now at last there is a campaign to get something done about this.

Scientists in Sweden claim to be able to “fingerprint” authors based on their pattern of use of words.

The flood that filled the Mediterranean must have been truly awesome to behold. Current estimates suggest the water flowed in at around 300 kph, filling the basin at 10 meters a day, and taking less than two years to complete the job. More detail here. Sadly no mention of Felice Landry’s role on the event.

The HADOPI issue

One things I didn’t manage to follow up on fully while I was in France was the issue of Internet censorship. As one commenter (thank you, Paul!) mentioned, France is in the process of passing some fairly draconian laws that allow for disconnection of users suspected of piracy. There’s an overview in The Guardian here. It all sounds very similar to what happened in New Zealand a while back, with Internet users potentially being pronounced “guilty” on the say-so of big corporations and no right to a trial. That one we won. As for France (insert Gallic shrug)?

I talked about this briefly with Lionel and he says the situation is quite complex. In particular there is European activity in the pipeline that could render the new French regulations illegal under European law. Where things will go from there it is difficult to say. Sorry I can’t be more precise about this.

Amazon Links Back

This morning I did a quick check a number of books by friends of mine that had fallen victim to AmazonFail. All of them have their rankings back, so I have restored the Amazon links on this site. I will, however, be looking at getting IndieBound links done as well. It may take a while as I’ll be on the road for the next week or so.

Two Quick Apologies

1. To everyone who clicked on Neil’s tweet the minute they saw it, sorry, my web host doesn’t expect that level of business. Hopefully responses are better now.

2. To Kate Bornstein: guilty as charged, I guess. My main concern was to alert people to what was going on, not to highlight every issue. And as Jenny Boylan remarked ironically on Twitter, this was one occasion when LGBT really was inclusive. But, just as Amazon can simply not think about LGB issues when worrying about “adult” content, so T issues tend to get forgotten when people are thinking about LGB issues. The number of trans-related books that got hit was doubtless only a fraction of the 57,000 or so books affected, but those books, and their authors, are no less important.

GLAAD Statement on #AmazonFail

From the Wall Street Journal:

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, says in a statement: “GLAAD has reached out to and they indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately, and any loss of visibility of gay-themed books as a result of this error will be made right by Amazon … When people learn about the lives of gay and transgender people and the common ground we share, the culture changes and advances. It is so important that stories about the lives of our community are available, and that companies like Amazon promote these titles in an equal fashion.”

Which sounds like excellent news. Hopefully things will be back to normal in a day or two.

#AmazonFail – Alternatives?

The AmazonFail story was still rumbling along when I got up this morning. Explanations of what happened are starting to edge into conspiracy theory territory, and other people I’m sure are saying that any bookstore has a right to offer only the books it wants to offer.

Well that’s true, and it would be true for Amazon had they not become so phenomenally successful that people have stopped seeing them as a bookstore and have started to see them as the bookstore. So before people start clamoring for attacks on any web site that still has Amazon links (because you know, someone, somewhere is going to do so) let’s consider what alternatives we might have. After all, as Alethea Kontis wisely said on Twitter last night:

You don’t have to buy books from Amazon, but please don’t stop buying books.

The option I’m currently most interested in is IndieBound. This is an association of independent bookstores. It appears to be US-only at the moment, but that’s where most of my sales come from anyway. They have an affiliate scheme, just like Amazon, although I’m guessing that they only sell books. The scheme appears to be keyed off ISBN numbers, but I think Amazon uses ISBNs for their ASIN numbers in the book part of their store so a change-over might not be too difficult. Does anyone out there have any experience of using their scheme?

Amazon Links Removed #Amazonfail

Because I’m a fairly organized programmer-type person, most of the Amazon links on this site go through the same code. I have disabled them all. There will be a few hard-coded links I have missed, and doing Emerald City is harder, but I will start to make progress on that too.

Can someone out there who has some artistic talent make an Amazonfail logo that people who have removed links in protest can place on their sites? Thanks!

Uh, Oh.. Outrage Time Again

Something very strange is happening in Amazon land. It appears that someone at the online bookseller had decided to strip the sales rankings from any book that includes gay or lesbian romance on the grounds that this is “adult content” (i.e. pornographic). The alarm was first raise by some gay writers (see here) whose books had been affected, but I’ve just seen a tweet from Neil pointing me to this list of affected books which includes classics such as Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and The Well of Loneliness.

This is clearly not a move against books with explicit erotic content. This is defining any mention of gay relationships as disgusting and pornographic. I am very disappointed in Amazon.

Update: John Coulthart reports (via Twitter) that academic books with LGBT content have also been hit. I immediately went to look for Queer Universes and I can’t see it listed at all. I’ve been checking some of my friends. All of Nicola Griffith’s books appear to have been hit. Christopher Barzak’s have not. Kelley Eskridge is also untouched.

Update 2: There is now a petition. Please sign.

Saving American Books

Remember that daft “lead in books” legislation that I blogged about a while back? Well it is still on the books, and libraries are starting to think about which books they will have to destroy in order to comply with the regulations. Thankfully the American Library Association is not giving up without a fight, and they now have an ally in Congress. Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) has introduced legislation to exempt books from the legislation. Of course he needs votes in order to get is passed. And so, America, it is writing to your Congresscritter time.

Further details on the ALA web site.

Hat tip to Neil Gaiman who has been keeping on top of this one so that I didn’t have to.

Best Reason Yet to Leave Facebook?

Because the British government wants to keep an eye on everything you do there and store it in a database. For you own safety and security, of course. Just in case you might happen to be a terrorist.

There’s lots being said about this today. Here are The Independent, The Guardian, the BBC and Nick Harkaway.

Probably the thing that worries me most about this is that the authorities generally don’t have a clue about how social networks are used. Many of us routinely accept “friend” requests from anyone who comes along, because we are public figures and it would be considered rude not to do so. But what happens if someone who friends you later turns out to actually be a terrorist, or a sex offender, or an illegal immigrant? Are you suddenly going to find yourself under investigation as an associate of this person? Unfortunately I suspect you are.

The other thing that worries me is that this renders any privacy systems that Facebook and the like might have in place useless, because all of the information will be available via the government databases which will almost certainly not be properly secured.

By the way, before anyone starts, I know the title was unfair to Facebook. The government wants to go after all social networks. They also want to keep track of every email you send, and every web site you visit. They are an equal opportunity snoop.

And finally, while we are on the subject, Joe Gordon reminds us that our ever-vigilant MPs have once again been passing laws that are so vague that any crank who happens to have a position of authority to use them to save children from the evils of comic books. Petition here. UK citizens go sign please.

George Orwell wants to be your friend. Do you know Mr. Orwell? Or his friend, Winston Smith?