Clean Reader: The app that censors rude words from ebooks

An ebook reader app allows sensitive readers to censor the naughty words they find offensive, replacing them with less risque alternatives.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
4 min read

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

According to a new Android and iOS e-reader app, the definition of "strong language" is somewhat broad. Clean Reader, developed by husband and wife team Jared and Kirsten Maughan after their teenage daughter expressed dismay over some cuss words in a book she read, is designed to keep users who hate naughty words from having to see them. Its tag line: "Read books, not profanity."

How it works is that you load your ebook into the app via iTunes; you can then select one of three filter levels, from mild censorship to the full monty; and the app does a find-and-replace using a database of offensive words selected by the Maughans, replacing them with "clean" versions.

For example, body parts in the genital region of women are all turned into "bottom"; the f-bomb becomes "freak"; "breast" becomes "chest", which at least is relatively analogous; "Jesus" becomes "gee" (which is actually a euphemistic corruption of "Jesus"); "Oh my God" becomes "Oh my goodness"; "whore" becomes "hussy"; "bitch" becomes "witch" (which could get somewhat confusing if the book actually discusses dogs).

There is a longer list of words here.

This has the potential for some interesting mishaps; GLBT News, for instance, reports a character named "Dick" being converted to "groin." More importantly, however, authors are incensed that the app changes their work without their consent.

As "Chocolat" author Joanne Harris pointed out on her blog, the issue is not necessarily one of vocabulary, but censorship.

"Most writers think very hard about the kind of language they use. Some of us are well-nigh obsessive about our choice of words -- and those of us who are published in the US often have to fight to retain our British spellings and vocabulary," she wrote. "We do this because we care about books. We care about language. And if we use profanity (which sometimes, we do) it is always for a reason."

The front page of the Clean Reader store before it was pulled. Most notably, "Manwhore" by Katy Evans and "Extreme Love" by Abby Niles. Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

Moreover, the censorship imposed by Clean Reader is subjective, based on a good-and-bad value judgement decided by the Maughans -- although the Clean Reader website also does ask readers to suggest words they'd like to see filtered if the app does not already do so.

"It's clear from the list of words you consider 'profane' that this app is designed to impose a Christian agenda on books," Harris wrote in an open letter to Clean Reader. "This is insulting to non-Christians. The pejorative use of the word 'witch' as a substitute for 'bitch' is offensive to pagans, and illustrates your religious bias."

She also points out that, if the idea is supposed to benefit young readers, it fails dismally; calling every part of a woman's reproductive anatomy a "bottom", for example, could be very confusing to a child, and is therefore counter-productive.

The Clean Reader team is adamant, however that the app is not only not doing anything wrong -- it is, they claim, perfectly legal, since they app does not change the epub source file, but merely how it is displayed on the screen -- but that authors who are unhappy with the alteration of their work should defer to anyone who spends money on that book, comparing the app to the optional profanity beeping on NPR podcasts.

"Some people like the impact certain words have on the narrative, dialogue, or setting of a book. Other people are indifferent to it. And some are offended by it... Yes the author/artist felt specific swear words worked best for their work of art, but for some of their audience these same words are what detract from the book," the Clean Reader team wrote on its blog.

"So will some authors be offended that some of their consumers use Clean Reader to pick out most of the profanity in their books? Perhaps. Should the reader feel bad about it? Nope. They've paid good money for the book, they can consume it how they want."

The good news for authors is that the money users pay for these ebooks is no longer going to Clean Reader. Inktera, the platform through which Clean Reader was selling ebooks (and making a percentage of sales), has withdrawn from the app.

Sci-fi author Chuck Wendig also had this to say to readers who would prefer to read a censored version of his work:

"You may say, 'But I want to read your books, just without all that nasty business.' To which I say, 'then I don't want you reading my books. Nothing personal, but I wrote the thing the way I wrote the thing. If that troubles you, then I don't want you reading it.'"