Following the New York Times story Popular Web Site Falls Victim to a Content Filter, concerning Secure Computing's product SmartFilter blocking BoingBoing, I wrote the following letter to Tomo Foote-Lennox, of Secure Computing, who is apparently the guy in charge of deciding what is smut and what isn't. He claims to be a defender of the interests of children:
In an e-mail message to Xeni Jardin, another of Boing Boing's chiefs, Tomo Foote-Lennox, a director of filtering data for Secure Computing, asked why the bloggers were starting a war. "We discussed several ways that you could organize your site so that I could protect the kids and you could distribute all the information you wanted," Mr. Foote-Lennox wrote.
One of the BoingBoing posts that Secure Computing used to justify classifying involved a shot showing a cat attempting to nurse on a woman's breast: Japanese TV show about cat that loves human milk. The image was very blurry and involved less actual nudity than your average shot of an Oscar-night dress. As a very experienced nursing mother, my hunch was that nursing, not an interspecies relationship, nor the expanse of cleavage, was at issue. So I wrote to Secure Computing's Censor-in-Chief to ask about this issue.
Regular readers of this blog are aware that I write with some frequency about breastfeeding issues, and may even be aware that when BBC Radio needed a Representative of American Womanhood to talk about nursing in public, they picked me. I have spent hundreds of hours nursing in public and have nursed on most major airlines and even nursed from the podium while doing public speaking. This is not a political stance, but rather a matter of pure practicality. The BBC pitted me against a man who said over and over that Public nudity is not socially acceptable, in the context of arguing that a nursing mother (Margaret Boyle-White) who refused to stop when confronted by UK police should have been arrested. I was followed on the program by Scottish MP Elaine Smith, who had introduced the bill recently passed at the time of the program making it an offense to stop mothers breastfeeding in public. (Preventing a woman from breastfeeding is already illegal in the State of New York.)
So I wrote the following letter to Foote-Lennox, to try to tease out whether what I suspected was true:
Dear Thom Foote-Lennox:
I am writing to express concern about your remarks concerning BoingBoing in the New York Times. As a long time BoingBoing reader, I am quite certain that it is by no stretch of the imagination a porn site. But I am also a nursing mother, so I am also concerned about what exactly causes you and your company to draw the conclusion the the nursing cat post was porn.
Nursing is not a sexual act. While there exist adults who sexualize children and the activities of children such as nursing, that is not what is going on in that image. The nursing cat seems to me simply a stand-in for a breast pump. Breast engorgement is a real phenomenon and dealing with it is a practical, not a sexual problem.
So what exactly about the nursing cat is sexual?
Pleasantville, New York
We never called it porn. We have categories for pornography, but we rated this as nudity. Some of our customers want to limit the viewing of nude pictures in their schools or offices. We give them the ability to make that choice.
I wrote back:
So a site that, say, depicted public breast feeding would make your list as nudity?
Look at our categories on our web site. Medical diagrams (women nursing cats on television don't count) are rated as nudity if they are explicit, but also as health, educational or consumer information. Many elementary schools choose to block all nudity, but high schools usually exempt health and education, meaning if it is health or education, you ignore any other category it may have.
I wrote back:
You are aware that in some countries where women are not even allowed to expose their faces in public, it is socially acceptable for women to bare their breasts to feed their infants, yes?
It strikes me when I read his replies that, first of all, my basic intuition is correct. It was exposing the human breast in the context of nursing that was perceived as sexual and inappropriate, not the surreal twist given it by Japanese TV.
When breastfeeding in public for those hundreds of hours (sometimes even in elementary schools [gasp!]; always with at least one child present), I utterly failed to to provide health, educational, and consumer information. Here's voice-over I forgot to give: You know, dear, using breastmillk as eye-drops works as well for clearing up pink-eye as commercial pharmaceuticals! And it works pretty well in clearing up ear infections when used as ear drops as well! I assumed you knew. You did know that, didn't you? Mothers: always remember to educate the public while nursing in public, lest your public nursing be taken as some kind if sexual act!
Secondly: here I am talking to the Internet Censor-in-Chief for the US Military and their overseas contractors and for three countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar), and he has this oddly sexualized idea of breastfeeding. He's just this guy, and he's entitled to his personal quirks, but exactly how did this situation evolve to put him in charge of deciding what is sexual and what is not? What is porn and what is not? What he was giving me was distanced by being a description of how software works, but was really very close to the rantings of that strange little man the BBC pitted me against who just kept repeating "nudity is not socially acceptable."
Combining this with questions about the legitimacy of Secure Computing's claims to have found vast quantities of porn on some sites, I conclude that the awarding of these sweeping contracts to them was really quite premature, even if you accept the idea that the military and three whole countries need their Internet censored (which I don't). What exactly qualifies this guy to evaluate what is and is not nudity, porn, inappropriate, etc.? Did he have some special training? Even Justice Potter Stewart was reduced to trying to define porn by saying "I knowing when I see it." Secure Computing offers much more than a definition: multiple categories of inappropriate material, each with their own definition. So just where does this guy Tomo get off telling the world exactly the manner in which the female breast may and may not be displayed on the Internet?
What I think we have here is censorship practiced as a kind of fetishism: Secure Computing employees read the Internet with a dirty mind and then have their way with it based on what they read into what they see.