Clean Reader is a free speech issue

My latest Guardian column, Allow Clean Reader to swap 'bad' words in books – it's a matter of free speech expands on last week's editorial about the controversial ebook reader, which lets readers mangle the books they read by programatically swapping swear-words for milder alternatives.

I agree with the writers who say that the app is offensive, and that it makes books worse. Where I part company with Clean Reader's detractors is where they claim that it is — or
should be — illegal. If we don't have the right to make our computers alter the things they show us, what happens to ad blockers, or apps that auto-annotate politicians' claims, or warn you when you're reading an article in a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch?

Free speech isn't just the right to express yourself, it's also the right not to listen. I disagree with the decision to use Clean Reader, and that's why it's a free speech issue. If you don't support the legal right to utter speech you find offensive, you don't support speech at all. That doesn't mean we shouldn't tell people not to use Clean Reader, or withhold our books from Clean Reader's store. It means we can't call for Clean Reader to be banned.

I want a future where readers get to decide how they read. I want to be able to make and share annotations to climate-denial bestsellers – even if that means deniers can mark up Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything and share their notes. I want to be able to turn Oxford commas off and on. I want to be able to change the font, block the ads, and swap cliched passages for humorous alternatives. I want Bechdelware that let me choose to genderswap the characters. I want sentiment analysis that tries to sync a music playlist with the words I read.

I want people to be able to do stupid things with their computers. Because more than anything, I want computer users to have the final say about what their computers do.

That includes kids, by the way. It's one thing for an adult to use Clean Reader to make her reading experience accord with her preferences. The same principle that says she should be allowed to dictate her computer's behaviour means her kids should be able to decide for themselves how sweary the books they read are.

Allow Clean Reader to swap 'bad' words in books – it's a matter of free speech [Cory Doctorow/The Guardian]