Text Transcript for Session 2: Censorship’s Historical Consequences
One of the thorniest faces of free speech debate is the tension between free expression as an abstract principle and kinds of speech that harm, such as hate speech, incitements to violence, or uses of information which can cause economic damage or threaten security or privacy. And technologies change how information can move, and harm. This week we put a historian of the earliest post-printing-press debates over free speech in dialog with a historian of the information practices of hate groups in America.
- Antony Grafton (Princeton, Renaissance & early modern book history)
- Gehnwa Hayek (U Chicago, Modern Arabic literature, censorship of comics in contemporary Lebanon)
- James Larue (American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom)
- Plus series hosts Ada Palmer, Cory Doctorow, and Adrian Johns
[Ada Palmer] So welcome to session two of our discussion of Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions. This week, the question is what are the real historical consequences of censorship? When we look back at major instances in world history that we think of that associate with censorship, whether it’s the inquisition or the USSR. We have a lot of ideas about what that censorship results in and many of those ideas that are derived from fiction, from Orwell, from ideas, from rhetorical discussions of censorship. So we wanted to look this week at what censorship attempts actually do to a society. And I will ask all of my guests and colleagues to introduce themselves. Ane then I’ll kick us off with a starting question, so.
[Jamie Larue] My name is Jamie Larue. I’m the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, for the American Library Association. We fight censorship.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I’m Mary Anne Mohanraj. I’m a professor at USC in the English Department. I am primarily a creative writer and know Ada through that, Professor Palmer through that. But my, I guess my other hat is that I did some of my doctoral work on post-colonialism in Sri Lanka. So I’ll be talking about that.
[Cory Doctorow] I’m Cory Doctorow, I write science fiction novels I’m one of the co-conveners with Adrian and Ada of this seminar series. I write science fiction novels as well and work for a nonprofit called Electronic Frontier Foundation. Part of our remit is fighting censorship and I’ve been involved in several Internet censorship related fights. I’m a visiting computer science professor at Open University in the UK, and a visiting the library science professor at UNC, and a research affiliate at the Media Lab.
[Tony Grafton] I’m Tony Grafton. I teach History at Princeton and I specialize in the History of Books, their makers and their readers. I’m actually interested in censorism, their ways of trying to deal with print and the dangerous had seemingly posed in religion and politics and other spheres to established orders.
[Adrian Johns] Hi, I’m Adrian Johns. I’m the conveners with Ada and Cory. I’m a History professor here at the University of Chicago. I do the History of Science and I do the History of Books and Publishing. And I also do the History of Intellectual Property Systems and the opposition that those systems have excited over centuries.
[Genhwa Hayek] And hi, I’m Genhwa Hayek. I’m assistant professor of Modern Arabic literature at the Department of Near Eastern languages and Civilizations here at the University of Chicago. I work on the Arab Middle East, contemporary Arab Middle East and on Lebanon more specifically.
[Ada Palmer] And to finish off by introducing myself as well. I’m Ada Palmer. I’m in the History Department here. I study the Italian Renaissance and the reception of the classics and the enlightenment. I work especially on the ways in which forbidden and clandestine ideals circulate in hostile intellectual environments. So I work on pornography, homosexuality, magic, witch craft, radical science, all of which may seem unrelated to each other, but circulate in similar ways. And I also write science fiction novels, hence my connections with publishing. So, last year in a class in which we had a set of discussions of censorship, setting the foundations for this project. One question that a brilliant student raised in class that then turned into an even more brilliant discussion afterward was the question of whether a particular projects of censorship historically succeeded or failed. So the initial framing of the question was the censorship in the USSR, did it succeed or fail? Could I do a project on whether it succeeded or failed? But if you zoom into that question, you have to ask what is the goal of the censoring project? And, what are its real effect? Before you can answer this question. A lot of the times when you look at a censoring body, our expectation is that it’s goal is to destroy information. That it’s goal is to destroy books, to destroy literature. Book burnings or often are visual medium, but very few of the activities of many of these sensory bodies are consonant with that being the goal. Very few book burnings actually try to track down every single copy of a book and they focus more on symbolic, etc. Whereas, a lot of their activities are consonant with, for example, sewing fear, creating an atmosphere of fear, projecting power, making sure that no one in that society can open a book and look at the first page or engage as a reader, engage as a writer without being conscious of the presence of this power and as a result, reading differently or writing differently. So the question, does censorship succeed or fail is determined in part by what you think it’s goal is. Is its goal to destroy information? If so, it usually fails. But if it’s goal is instead to change the way people think, the way people read, what people think, what people read and what gets written and how things move and who has access to what. Then we can open this up to thinking about different kinds of success. So I’d just like to launch that as the starting seed for discussion and invite anyone who wants to say something to say something.
[Adrian Johns] Well, I think somebody has to start so, I think one of the things that we might want to bear in mind is something that we spoke about briefly last time which is, as it were the importance of time and space dimensions. So, if we ask, does the censorship system succeed? It’s worth at least mentally adding in clauses, does it succeed over what time scale? Does it succeed over what geographical area? Because, there are questions of jurisdiction that involve territoriality. So in the 18th century, for example, you might have quite an effective censorship system in one part of Europe, but reputationally that might increase the popularity of certain work in a different part of Europe. It’s notorious that the Dutch booksellers would use the papal index of prohibited books as a guide to what to publish because they thought it would be easily advertisable. That may be a bit of an urban legend but I actually think it’s true. It’s the equivalent of, in our own age, at least in my country, getting banned on Top of the Pops. Top of the Pops being the BBCs top 40 program. And it used to be that there was a certain cache to being banned from it because then you could sell yourself as like a cultural rebel. So, specialty is one thing. Temporality occupies, I think it’s slightly different sense is important. It may be possible to suppress works for a certain time and that may redirect people’s questions. I’m thinking here actually at the Catholic approach to Copernicanism in the 17th century. Where it seems that more or less did redirect where Italian investigations of nature went. There were multiple things like natural history. But over time, you may end up with a reputational cost, which is rather like the one that geography. Where, so by the 19th century, the historical reputation of that suppression effort became a major part of anticlericalism in Europe. And you have the big committee that ran Victor Hugo and people like that, who ended up amazingly proposing that they, well actually they did put up a statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo de’Fiori. But it climaxed with a proposal that we would know that the scientific revolution of one when there was a statue of Giordano Bruno at the center of St. Peter’s. And to that extent, you could say yes, that the clamping down on explicit Copernicanism works locally in both temporal and spatial sense. But it might be counterproductive if you expand to other horizons, both temporally and spatially to ask what happens in the longest term and what happens across borders.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] So, I’m not sure if this is quite what you’re looking for, but, I’m thinking about the idea of the chilling effect. And as like a contemporary example, I was at a library event just this past Tuesday and we were talking about censorship. And one of the library staff from the Oak Park public library was saying to me that they actually don’t carry a lot of sexually explicit materials like sex ed, et cetera kinds of things. Not because they’ve necessarily been challenged on them, but because they sort of, it would be a lot of trouble. They’re kind of opening themselves up and anticipating trouble and it’s so often easier not to go there. And all it takes is kind of one or two incidents to make people pull back even further. So when Ada asked us to do this and I was looking more into censorship in Sri Lanka, what I was finding is that it was often not so much that there was an explicit project to censor per se, but that when they were forming governments, when you were putting together the 1978 Constitution in Sri Lanka after colonialism, the Constitution is actually not that strong on protecting freedom of expression. And then there are various amendments later on that sort of let the people in power by a two-thirds vote make amendments that will then override the Constitution. Which again, not protecting freedom of expression. And so once you don’t have laws in place that guarantee that, it opens up a lot of space for people to be frightened, for journalists to be afraid, for them to actually be potentially jailed for this. There is one noted journalist who was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for, and I’m going to actually, I’m gonna I have a whole page of like three or four pages of notes that I’m going to send data to forward onto you. So, I will send you the details of some of these cases for you to look at if you’re interested. But, and that sentence was revoked by the president so he didn’t actually end up having to serve that time, but it was for essentially writing things about the war. About who is responsible for the killings and in a way that the government felt would promote unrest and would possibly, just there’s a real concern of like, oh, well if we talk about this stuff, it’s just going to make everything flare up again. And then we’ll be back in the middle of this war that we just escaped. So I guess the question, like what is their goal in censoring? Their goal is often to keep themselves in power, I think. And I think that’s sort of what I turn back to. It’s not any particular, like I don’t want you to say this just to say it, it’s because I’m worried that you’re saying it is going to lead to this situation. And then once you make an example of one person, everyone else self-censors because they’re afraid of what might happen to them. And so it has this incredibly large chilling effect on the community overall.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah, James, did you want to —
[Jamie Larue] Yeah, so I wanna say, I think ultimately censorship is the last resistance of the side that’s about to lose. That’s why they get mad. And as I think about the history of all of the books that have been challenged in American librarianship. Number one will be Huckleberry Finn, and the reason changes with each generation. And at first the people who were opposed to Huck Finn were librarians who felt that this book was too coarse and too humorous. It wasn’t serious enough like James Fenimore Cooper or Nathaniel Hawthrone. And then as time went on and was like, well then people in the south post World War II or post-Civil War felt that it was too sympathetic to the black man. And so should be suppressed on that basis and only now that we get into the 21st century are we having people of color complaining about the reading aloud of Huckleberry Finn because of the n-word. And so that’s kind of interesting to me to see that there’s all these ways that people in power push back to say, we are the ones who get to decide matters of taste and they don’t succeed in suppressing the book. In fact, they often given way more cultural cachet because now it’s forbidden.
[Cory Doctorow] thought I would mention a form of relatively stable censorship. And thinking about it as the other speaker spoke, I think maybe the reason it’s so stable is that it’s censorship with a really effective business model. And I’m thinking of what’s happened with hip hop music. So, when sample-based hip hop music first emerged, no one was sure about the copyright status of sampling. There was a widespread view that it was probably fair use. Fair use is when you’re allowed to use something without permission from the rights holder. But fair use is what lawyers call fact intensive. Every fair use case is a case unto itself and subjected to long legal scrutiny. Experts can disagree, and it’s not always clear, it’s rarely clear going in whether use is fair. But it was felt that even if it wasn’t fair, it would be what was called deminimous, too small for the law to trouble itself with and therefore not a thing anyone needed to worry about. And so the rule was sampling for the longest time was anything goes. And that was probably a good thing because if you’re going to license samples, the kinds of sampling that was characteristic of early hip hop would have broken the legal budgets. Not because of the sampling fees, but because the lawyer hours associated with sampling it. A typical Public Enemy song from the era might have 500 samples in it and a contemporary hip hop song might have three. And the most successful hip hop albums of all time, commercially, inflation adjusted, were albums that could literally not be made today. One is Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, and the other one is, and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, excuse me, by Public Enemy. And, they would both lose enormous fortunes if you cleared all their samples now with the going rate of three to $400 a sample, little higher, a little lower depending on the sample. And one of the impacts of this is, is that it meant that if you wanted to make hip hop, you needed to be signed to a label because labels pretty much only licensed to each other. If you call up a label, asking for a sample license for your independent act in your garage, they may not ever return your call. But if you work for one label, you can call another label and you can license anything in their catalog. And so what this meant was that in order to be a hip hop musician, you have to not be an independent hip hop musician. You had to be within the labels stable and once all hip hop was licensed, we have to reduce the number of samples we used. We had to effectively kill a music genre and replace it with a kind of new form of that genre that evolved because of legal pressure and not aesthetic pressure, the three sample song instead of the 500 sample song. But it also has this kind of virtuous cycle from the perspective of the labels, because the more musicians there are making music signed to a label, the more music there is that is within a label’s catalog that guarantees that anyone who wants to make a new piece of music using a sample would likely have to pay that label for the privilege because they own a wider and wider slice in the culture. So this has been relatively stable over time. Now there’s still tons of musicians who make illegal hip hop. There’s still girl talk, there’s still booty, all the mashup stuff still exists, but it has no commercial life. So it doesn’t have a business model. I mean, one of the reasons that there was such exuberant hip hop production was not just that we had new kinds of technology that made sampling easier. We had people who were dreaming of finding a commercial audience. We had audiences that were paying to tour bands. We bands that were cross pollinating and so on. It wasn’t just dollar signs in people’s eyes, it was stars in their eyes, but the stars were attached to dollar signs. And so, once hip hop becomes a thing, sample-intensive hip hop becomes a thing that you literally can’t make money on because if you ever attach your name to it, you face legal repercussions. It becomes a much fringier, becomes a lot more like art rock and a lot less like something that people dream of glory with. And so yeah, now we have super stable long-term business model oriented non-ideological censorship that is part of a huge piece of why our culture looks the way it does today.
[Ghenwa Hayek] It seems to me that one of the things we might want to think about is context. I mean the sort of the underground and how it reacts and may benefit from a certain kind of notoriety associated with censorship by the government. And what it allows it to then frame itself as, functions in a different way from the mainstream when it’s censored by other mechanisms, or buy a more strident or more problematic series of mechanisms. And I think that with respect to the underground, it’s really interesting to think about this tension precisely because of how sometimes in effect, the minute it becomes, I mean the minute attention or scrutiny is placed upon it and the minute it becomes the subject or object of a censoring gaze, it in fact can gain cultural cachet and cultural power and basically cultural and social capital. You think about like how, I mean, for example, I work on and work with a number of local comics artists from Lebanon who a few years ago, they published a magazine called Samandal, which is the Arabic word for salamander. And the idea was that it would publish comics from all over the world. And it was very small scale and very local. Local in the Lebanese context means Arab Middle East, so its borders were a bit more, let’s say regional than national. But at the same time, and it had developed a solid reputation as a place where people were making really innovative art and doing really creative things. Then a few years ago, they fell under the, but okay, and to sort of just dial back, but that notoriety was regional and restricted to the Arab Middle East. To the little comics festivals, to artists’ residencies, to groups of people who were all very dynamic and doing really exciting things. But they were doing it in a sort of small scale. And then a few years ago, the Lebanese government decided to sue the makers of the magazine because one of the pieces that they published depicted a man looking at the crucified body of Jesus Christ and saying something vaguely homoerotic about it. And so, that got tangled in with all sorts of anxieties about sect and religion and offending a religious group in Lebanon, of which we have 18 and also of anxieties over homosexuality. And so they were brought to trial and forced to pay a fine, which was a very substantial fine, it was $30,000. But by doing that, their case became really publicized in an Anglo-European context, where otherwise the magazine would not have been noticed. So the New Yorker wrote about it, and the New York Times wrote about it and it suddenly became, Samandal became a symbol for a kind of narrative about the repression of the East, which is partly true. But also a symbol of these upstart comics artists trying to make a name for themselves and doing this really exciting thing, which is also very true, vis-a-vis a repressive government. But that case allowed them to become visible globally in a way that they would not have been otherwise. And it’s opened certain kinds of, it’s brought certain kinds of attention on them. So it’s a case with especially with, I mean it’s just worth maybe thinking about context and thinking more carefully when we’re talking about censorship. What time, against whom, and what kinds of capital then are being sort of exchanged and how value is sort of shifting as a result of this, whether it’s wanted or not.
[Tony Grafton] I’d like to add in another area that only Adrian so far mentioned. Which is that censorship doesn’t only strike the arts and imaginative literature and imaginative expression. It also radically alters the flow of ideas and information in, for example, what we might now call the natural sciences. In the 16th and 17th centuries, everyone knew that the cutting edge of medical work was being published in Latin in the Swiss city of Basel. And Italian doctors wanted to read this work, but it was by Protestants or by Catholics who haven’t received inquisitorial approval. And a historian at Harvard, Hannah Marcus, has found that in that moment, you could just go around the system by saying, I’m a doctor, I just want special permission. And in an archive she found thousands of special permission. So it turns out that in that one case, the flow of information was not interrupted. Privilege enabled those who needed this material to get it, even though the flow is interrupted. But, if you think about the 20th and 21st centuries, the way in which scientific communities in the East Bloc were cut off from scientific communities in the West Bloc. If you think about the way information on climate change is now available or not available on publicly funded government websites. You can see censorship can have an enormous impact on the flow of factual information. The flow of conclusions to be drawn from that and that can end up with massive social, political, ecological effects.
[Cory Doctorow] I’m reminded of the Tony Blair government enacting rules against consuming extremist content after 9/11 and the select prosecution of grad students who were studying terrorism and particularly grad students from South Asia and the Middle East who looked at banned materials were facing prosecution that their Anglo-European counterparts studying the same subject were getting away with.
[Ada Palmer] And now, is it in Hungary where universities are being stripped of funding, if anyone at the university is conducting research on refugees?
[Ada Palmer] Which is another one of the angles by which not just official censoring policies, but the ones that do it in a roundabout manner by stripping funding away, whether punitively or preemptively from things that are looking at it, is one of the organs by which censorship is often inactive in situations where for one reason or another actually legally banning it isn’t permitted or is permitted only with a two-thirds majority and the Council or whatever, it is harder than stripping it away. Or for example, in our own City of Chicago where we are now, when the painting Mirth and Girth, which was a very controversial painting, apparel of Washington wearing women’s underwear was displayed in the Art Institute. The city gave the Art Institute a budget of one dollar for the subsequent year. And, the City was not legally allowed to censor the painting. And in fact, they took the painting down and there was a big legal case and the ACLU sued the City of Chicago and the ACLU won. And the City of Chicago had to pay a tiny, tiny amount of damages compared to how much money they had stripped away from the Art Institute. So, using the purse strings, whether it’s canceling the budget of a student club that is doing activities you don’t like or canceling the budget of an institute or university that is doing things you don’t like, will often substitute when legal means are either prohibited or are simply slower than what you want to enact.
[Cory Doctorow] I think in the Hungarian case, there’s more though. Soros funds an independent university there called Central European University in Budapest, which doesn’t rely on the state for funding, but Soros is the bogeyman of the Hungarian strong man President Orban. And if right now CEU and other institutions in Hungary study refugees, if five years from now, the only institution in Hungary where refugees are being studied is this one that has been demonized already as being an instrument of Soros, then Soros becomes the man who is normalizing refugees in Hungary and can be further demonized.
[Tony Grafton] Where still, the CEU is finding a new home in Vienna, or it’s simply going to be driven out if Hungarian realm.
[Adrian Johns] Another thing I’m thinking about the question that sparked all of this, what are the consequences of censorship? There’s something which I think is, I mean, it’s almost like, so blindingly obvious that I think we’re all assuming it, but it may be worth just articulating explicitly. Which is that the history of technology is a major player in this. It’s a different thing if you’re able to produce copies essentially cost-free at indefinite rates because everything is digitized, and you can submit them through networks. From if you have to print books manually in an artisanal workshop, one doesn’t want to be too sort of Marxist and so it all reduces to the techniques and materialities of production and so forth. But, there’s a certain sense in which, what it is to censor the effectiveness of censorship, the strategies of interaction and response, resistance, humor and so forth that surround censorship. All of these things depend on the technological infrastructure within which they’re operating. So, it’s in some ways easier to imagine, it’s kind of weird thing actually, it’s almost easier to imagine a sort of a Orwellian system which would be really effective at suppressing entire ways of thinking back in the world of artisanal production than it is in Orwell’s world. And it’s certainly easier to imagine that then than it is now, I think. But, I’m not sure about that, I just wanted to lay that out. So, I think that the history of technology is really a major sort of structuring element of all of this.
[Ghenwa Hayek] But it seems to me that, I mean, the forces that censor are always keeping up. If you think about, for example, Google’s new search engine for China, that is being built and designed to only to give the results of officially sanctioned searches. I mean, you can see how the promise of the new technology quickly meets or, I mean yeah it is quick, 20 years maybe, quickly meets an equally astute response. And then when you think about the Internet and think about how much we take for granted of this technological advance and the rapidity by which we can put this information and transmit it. And you think about, okay, but what does it mean? Like we all take Google for granted, but what does it mean that if you’re in China and your Google is not going to work.
[Adrian Johns] I’d say that, think I spoke a bit hastily by saying that it’s easier to imagine that a really effective censorship in the world of Galileo than is now. Because —
[Ghenwa Hayek] I don’t disagree.
[Adrian Johns] But then thing is, when you have these cases like the Chinese, where it’s actually being attempted and, maybe it’s unclear yet to what extent it’s really going to have that kind of deep epistemic impact, but it could do in principle, yeah.
[Cory Doctorow] I think that slightly mistakes the way information control works in China. I think we have an overemphasis on censorship elements and an underemphasis on other means of information control, the use of patriotic messages that flood the channel and so on. The most immediate effect of searching for banned information in China is not punishment. It’s having your Internet connection slowed down or possibly shut off for a few hours. And it’s a way to condition a reflex, not a way to actively identify dissidents and punish them necessarily. Though Google app Project Dragonfly does affirmatively identify people who make banned searches and stores it, and relays it to Chinese political authorities. That, from what we understand about Chinese censorship, looks like it’s more like a backstop or maybe a pretense if you need a reason to round someone up. You can use the search history, but it’s not the main mechanism. The main mechanism is really a large mostly volunteer group of patriotic bloggers basically, who flood channels. And we have giant leaks of their control systems, of their control channels where they talk to each other about how they’re going to coordinate their efforts. There’s a long-held belief that they were doing it for small amounts of money. They’re sometimes called the 50 Cent Army because they got half a renminbi proposed allegedly. But it seems like that was overstated too, based on these leaks that it really is a huge patriot army of people who, every time someone starts talking about certain kinds of action, mostly collective in-person action in the streets, not complaints about corruption necessarily. Because that’s the way that factions in the Chinese ruling elite can attack one another is by identifying inefficient or corrupt elements that are under the purview of a different ministry and going after them. But, actual student demonstrations like the ones we’ve seen with the young Chinese communist groups going to Guangzhou and Shenzhen for big demonstrations to shut down factories. That’s where they actually target it and they flood those channels and just talk about sports, talk about the weather, talk about how great stuff is going and did you hear that amazing song and here’s a viral video. And it’s much more effective I think than just the raw censorship. The Chinese firewall is very, very porous and you can get a Google Fi SIM and go to China and have a completely uncensored Internet service through a Chinese partner carrier that identifies that you’re on as Google Fi SIM and disconnects all censorship and filtering from your service.
[Jamie Larue] See what, the part I like about this is the kind of interplay of patriotism and censorship. I had a chance to listen to somebody who was a children’s author in Lebanon. And she was saying that, you know, very strict controls by the state, so they couldn’t do a, there couldn’t be a dog in the house. They couldn’t show a pig in the children’s thing. If the woman doctor was going out, she had to wear headgear and she said, but this backfired in an interesting way. What happened was, as teenagers got older and as they began to try to make sense of a life that was lived mostly on the Internet, there was nothing that was permitted in the Lebanese language to help them make sense of that. And so this whole attempt to try to make people patriotic and nationalistic in fact tethered them to a childhood that didn’t work for them when they got to be old. And so they went to English, and so they call it the mother tongue problem where the attempt to control the language meant that people were leaving the language behind as they got older. So I like it when censorship screws up.
[Ada Palmer] Well, some of these discussions, particularly of how immediate acts of censorship may be very effective in the immediate time and space, but then have the opposite effect farther out, in contrast with as Cory was saying, what happened with hip hop, is making me think about how while we can often look at censorship and information control together, this is one of the spears where we’re seeing big differences between them. That the legacy and consequence of something that gets called censorship, and that people talk about as censorship and that percolates out through everyone’s consciousness as there is censorship happening, has a very, very different aftermath and, it seems, more likelihood of having backfiring or shaping protest or counters or resistance or other forms of things than forms of information control that might have a similar choking effect on circulation or thought or output. But they don’t get called that because they get called licensing or copyright or the way that we’re monetizing or protecting a particular thing. And if it doesn’t get called censorship, people don’t respond to it in that same way. And it doesn’t have that same second tier legacy.
[Jamie Larue] Almost like Cory was saying, censorship by distraction. I can make so much other stuff more interesting then we don’t talk about the thing that we’re trying to censor.
[Ada Palmer] Because everyone here has heard of the Great Firewall of China over and over and over. But much less the many other techniques that are happening in the same sphere, that are having the same effect but are harder to call censorship.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj I think you maybe have to be a little careful, I mean, I feel like when you talk about a censorship effect, that attempt that backfires. That’s obviously very satisfying to all of us and so we pay attention to it and we point to it. I guess I feel like a large percentage of the time it’s just effective. The censorship is effective and there isn’t a case study to look at or anything. It’s just an absence which is much harder to see. So I think I just, I don’t know, I guess I would sort of hesitate to say that the second type of methodology that you are talking about is maybe more effective than the first. I think often censorship is tremendously effective. I’m thinking even of things like, and again I guess I keep coming back to self-censorship because we do it all the time. We’re all engaged in this constantly. I’m an academic, I teach at a university. If I have tenure, then I have some protections on my free speech. If I don’t, I have no protections. The university can just decide not to rehire me back. So when USC does things that I don’t approve of, I have to stop and think, do I want to talk about this publicly? Do I want to casually mention it on Facebook, which is where I live? And do I want to cause a ruckus about it? Do I want to, and that sword hanging over your head of “you might not have a job next year” is tremendously effective in silencing people. And I guess I would also say that, I guess another aspect of the less explicit censorship, maybe not less explicit, but the cultural censorship, I think that can be really effective. So when I was teaching in Utah, this was in 2000, my students in Salt Lake City, many of them were members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and they were not supposed to watch R-rated movies. Like, so that was a request of the church, a precept of the church. So if we were assigning them in class, we were supposed to only assign movies that had edited versions available at Brigham Young so that the students could go and watch that version instead, which is very complicated as a professor. And, it varies, like we might follow that policy in the freshman level classes, sophomore level. And then at some point someone’s taking a film studies class, you’re like, okay, well really in Film Studies you’d better be prepared to watch the actual film. So, there is some variation in how it played out. But, I think most of us actually kind of went along with this and sort of didn’t push back against it. It wasn’t necessarily to the course, experience, it’s really easy to get into a “is this worth the trouble” sort of mindset, and I think that’s one of the most dangerous, most endemic forms. And then in fact, this was just in the news this week, the LDS Church leadership asked the women to stay off social media for a while. If you Google, this will probably come up because it just happened a few days ago. And so now there’s this whole conversation about what is it that the church finds dangerous and damaging about social media, specifically to the women of the church?
[Cory Doctorow] Specifically before an election.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Yeah, yeah, so and in terms of enforcing social norms and what women are supposed to be spending their time on. And given that for so many women especially stay at home moms, the community they have online is in a variety of ways our paths to economic freedom, social mobility, etc., and so on, asking them to step back from that and making that a religious request, is incredibly powerful.
[Tony Grafton] I think we have to historicize. I mean, I agree that censorship can be very effective. And that though I love this in the times when it isn’t, those are also exceptions. But it really depends. I think of what happens in 16th century and 17th century Italy when there was a very concerted effort to change the way the Jews live, learn and worship, which involves pushing them in together. So people who have lived in an Italian cities since the Roman Empire are segregated from everyone else, they’re required to wear a special costume, they’re locked in at night. And the most radical moment is in 1553 when the Talmud, the great code of Jewish law, the backbone in Jewish life, is publicly burned and not just a symbolic copy, a lot of copies are publicly burned on the Campo de’Fiori on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year. And, this is tremendously powerful and after that, there’s tremendous pressure on Jews to convert and some Jews do convert. And there’s even a really clever church-sponsored effort to change the way Jews think. While they forbid the printing of the Talmud, they accept and support the printing of the Zohar, the great treatise of cabalistic mysticism, which is printed very grandly and if twice in Italy while the the Talmud is still forbidden. And immediately one thinks of the ways in which that could lead to a kind of contemplative religion, that might be what you’d want people who don’t follow your religion to follow. But, it really doesn’t work. Jews continue, on the whole, to observe their form of Judaism, which is as always in Judaism, the one where if you where if you were cast up in a desert island, you would build a synagogue and then the other synagogue that you don’t go into. You see this best in the Venetian ghetto where there’s 50 synagogues that 49 of them won’t go into. And the best thing is that scholars have begun to push into the records of everyday life. It’s clear that somehow they still studied the Talmud, they still knew their law, they still read the Talmud. We don’t yet know exactly how and that’s one case where a censorship which was extremely informed about what it was trying to censor and very close to that basically fails. It creates a lot of misery, but it does not have the effects that it wants to have. And I think it’s important to study those cases as well as the many cases where the pressure is greater. I agree with you, in fact, I think especially that censorship which is not announced as such, is probably more effective than censorship which is imposed by public enactment and law, and served with fixed penalties.
[Adrian Johns] This whole line of conversation actually sparks a memory in my mind. Which is that a few years back, I did a book on the History of the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. And the BBC had, when it was founded in the 1920s an initial Director General, Sir John Reith, who came to embody the moral virtues and kind of purpose of a national public broadcasting corporation. Which were the Reith once put it that the purpose of the BBC was to give the people slightly better than what they wanted. So that always, you kind of pull the population up culturally and it had a monopoly on the airways for something like 40, 50 years in order to pursue that. Now, in the late 1940s early 50s there was a very smart book published, an attack on the BBC that went back through the records of the formation of the corporation in the 1920s, called British Broadcasting: a Study in Monopoly. And it was kind of first book by Ronald Coase who went onto be Nobel prize Winner in Economics and also here. And it turned out Ronald Coase was still around then. He was 103 years old, so he went off and had lunch with him and he reminisced about meeting Sir John Reith back in the 30s. And he said that they went and they sat and Reith was giving his line about what the BBC was for. Which was to improve the moral good of the people by giving them string quartets and Bach and church services and things like that. And certainly not jazz or anything. And, Coase, as still remembered it said, “but Sir John, that’s censorship” and Reith said, “yep.” And the thing about that it’s like Tony just said, that wouldn’t be surprised to Coase, he kind of loathed to BBC. But for most British people, even though they know perfectly well that in that sort of two generation period, there is an artificially sustained public monopoly on the airwaves, and everything is channeled through this. And even in World War II, that was a Ministry of Information that was kind of in cahoots with the BBC. And, even though in fact the monopoly routinely breached by pirate broadcast of one kind or another for decades. And people listen to those perfectly freely. It’s also the case, I think, and I don’t think this is just a myth, the role that the BBC comes to play has very constitutive part in how British people think Britishness is. What they think Britishness is. It has to do with moderation, middle of the road, non-national, rational, cool, we don’t carry guns, our police are unarmed and all of that kind of thing. And it’s one of these things where if you ask, is censorship effective? One could say, I think from the case of the history of the BBC, it is effective, but not necessarily in quite the way that it was going to be effective in the 1920s. I think it’s actually kind of deeply conditioning of the way that people think that their nation is and should be. And it’s been a huge shock to find what happens with the Brexit debate, with these kind of vulgar, ugly, nationalisms bubbling up that we didn’t think that we had. And I wonder how much something like that is true with other systems, copyright and so forth, where they’re not announced as censorship. Even though internally, people might actually frankly admit that they are, but they’re sort of accepted and they can infiltrate into people’s sense of identity, or proprieties, or windows of the range of possible rational intercourse that kind of thing.
[Cory Doctorow] When you were talking about how the Jews went on to worship in their traditional way, I was reminded of the Great Fire, which leveled London and then left behind nothing but the stumps of the church spires. And Christopher Wren, the architect referred to the rebuilding said, “Finally we can rationalize the streets of London.” Which had been historically the cow paths and they wended and winded their ways through the city and were very inefficient. So he was going to lay out these straight lines, but by the time they started the construction, people navigating by the stumps of the church spires had reconstructed the old winding roads. And they had to build on the paths of the old winding roads from before the fire. So, certainly there are some patterns that endure. I want to talk about the history of code censorship in this country, software censorship, which is something the Electronic Frontier Foundation is very involved with. Until 1992, the National Security Agency classed strong cryptography as a form of munition. And said that publishing codes that would allow you to keep secrets that the NSA could peer into violated international munitions export rules. Because if you publish them, then foreigners might get them and they might take these munitions, like making cluster bombs available. And in 1992, EFF represented a young cryptographer, then a grad student at the University of California-Berkeley, named Daniel J. Bernstein. And he was publishing software code on an early Internet messaging system called Usenet. And it embodied very strong ciphers that the NSA couldn’t break. And we argued that the First Amendment protected his right to publish software, that code was a form of expressive speech. And for people who aren’t CS majors, that may seem a bit silly, but if you’ve ever read code, on the one hand, the actual code structures themselves can be very expressive. They can be a way for people to talk about how you solve a kind of problem. But also code is heavily commented. There is a Talmud that goes beside the Torah, in the form of comments, where programmers explain what they think they’re doing. And these, I mean, if you ever want to read a beautiful set of code annotations, there’s a thing called the Time Zone file that’s used by system clocks to figure out when daylight savings happens in different places. And it’s full of extremely colorful commentary about stubborn people who live in one city that don’t advance their clock, surrounded by a territory where they do or vice versa, and why those people have deep moral deficiencies. This is a majorly expressive form of speech. And what’s interesting is that the run-up to the Bernstein case, which we prevailed in, many other arguments have been made to the US government on behalf of very powerful entities about why cryptography should be lawful for all to possess. So one was that, although the NSA said that these codes were very strong and even though the NSA could break into them, no one else could, and therefore we could trust all of US banking and every other secret in America to them, a guy named John Gilmore was one of the founders of EFF, who also was one of the early employees of Sun Microsystems, designed a computer and an operating system to break debts and the cipher the NSA let us use, the DES. And he showed that for a quarter million dollars he could own every secret in America in two and a half hours, go through the entire code space of DES. And they said, who are we going to believe you or the NSA who hired all the PhD mathematicians from the Ivies and the big 10, take your computer and be off. And this is on behalf of the banks, but this First Amendment argument carried the day, and it carried the day at the Appellate Division in the Ninth Circuit. The NSA declined to take it to the Supreme Court, and that’s been the law of the land ever since. It’s why we have strong cryptography. Maybe later we can talk about a modern correlate to this, which is the 3D printed guns issue that has been so much in the news. Which has its own realpolitik and its own arguments about code being a form of expressive speech. And, my cards on the table, as a Canadian who spent half his life in England, I’m scared as hell of guns, but I find the case endlessly fascinating.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Should I give a side note to that? So I serve as a library board trustee in Oak Park and we have a 3D printer in the library and we were just discussing at the last board meeting. Do we need to put something in the library guidelines, that says we won’t let you print weapons. Because right now someone could, they could walk in and use the library resources to print a weapon and walk out.
[Cory Doctorow] A very bad weapon.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] A very bad weapon perhaps, but we have not come to a decision on this. We’re like, this is going to be a difficult conversation.
[Ada Palmer] And it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s often this kind of sphere where censorship case law and information regulation case law is made. When we want to think about examples of things that get censored, we reach for the things that are flashy and we reach for Galileo, we reach for Huckleberry Finn, and we reach for the latest GLBT-friendly YA novel that has been kicked off of a syllabus somewhere in the US. And those are almost never the precedent-setting cases. The precedent-setting case will be pornography, or it will be how to grow marijuana in your bedroom, or it will be something regarding how to, what is the book I was just looking at? How to Build Disposable Silencers, which is a book that’s been banned in New Zealand and banned in different places. That those will set the precedent that then determines what regulates literature, novels, poetry and everything else.
[Cory Docctorow] Hard cases make bad law.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Yeah.
[Ada Palmer] Mary Anne’s comments about the chilling effect and the silences, and the question of how we measure the successes of censorship is also an important one that I revisit a lot. Because often what we’re looking at is the real result is largely the things that didn’t get written or that didn’t get shared, what the people didn’t say, which gets very difficult to document in contrast with the material that people did say. And sometimes it’ll be X person decided not to write a novel or not to publish a novel. Sometimes it will just be X person wrote two fewer novels in their lifetime because they lost all of that extra time to the sapping effects of, the exhaustion, of a living in fear, the exhaustion of being anxious, the exhaustion of putting your works through lots of vetting processes before sending it forward, and then the ultimate exhaustion of having a work get in trouble and how that slows things down. Or the way Chinese censorship is affecting Hollywood movies because they don’t want to produce something that’s going to get held up for its Chinese release because they lose money. So they’ll edit the script from the beginning to remove things they think Chinese censors might have a bone to pick with.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] So I’ll give you an example of that, I was working on a YA fantasy series. Showed the first book to my agent, the second book I said is going to have a lesbian protagonist. And hadn’t written the book yet. And he came back to me, my former agent actually, but he came back to me with, well, is it a book about being a lesbian? Is it an issues book? And I said, no, it’s a fantasy novel. She goes off and saves the world, blah, blah blah, but she happens to be a lesbian. He’s like, well, do you have to make her a lesbian because if you do, we’re gonna lose all the Southern library sales. And it was like that very concrete thing that he knew that this percentage of the market was not going to pick up the book as a result. And actually another example of that on Tuesday night, the American Library Foundation had their big benefit and one of the guest of honor was Judy Blume. You guys are all young maybe, but you don’t know Judy Blume, but she was incredibly foundational and she wrote these books like, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. That were shocking at the time because they talked about menstruation explicitly and were aimed at young girls. So, and she said that she encountered very similar things, she had, and here’s an example of self censorship, I’m like Ada, it is okay to use obscenity in this panel, which is going out on the Internet?
[Cory Doctorow] They don’t let you swear on the Internet.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I know, like I had a little moment of like, is this something that the panelists, that the programming would be concerned about? So there’s an example of self censorship, anyway. So Judy Blume said that she had written this scene in which the boy uses the word “fucking.” And I have to say, hearing 80 year old Judy Blume up there as guest of honor saying “fucking” over and over again was awesome. It was just an incredible moment. But she said that she had exactly the same thing, that when she put this forward, the publisher came back to her and said, we’re going to lose all the book fair sales, can’t you use “friggin” or some other word instead? And she’s thought about it and she’s like, no. That is the word the character would use, lose the book fair sales. But that’s how this stuff plays out. And most authors would change the word.
[Tony Grafton] Just after World War II, when Norman Mailer wrote the first of the big World War II novels, he misspelled that word fug and famously, when the great actresses, Tallulah Bankhead met him, she said, oh, you’re the young man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Nice.
[Cory Doctorow] So Pat Murphy is a wonderful feminist science fiction writer who observed that there were no women in Tolkien, that it’s just a bunch of dudes and that one elf princess. And so she wrote a version of The Hobbit in space where all the characters were female called There And Back Again. And the Tolkien estate, although they were overreaching in terms of copyright, threatened to sue and so the book went out of print. And so she wrote that and a sequel and never any more of them and there are no longer in the stream of commerce. And it was about whether or not anyone wanted to get into a long legal battle with the Tolkien estate, especially someone eking out a semi-marginal existence as a science fiction writer.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Actually and that’s another example of where like we chickened out. I used to edit this magazine, Strange Horizon, a science fiction magazine, a writer sent, and I don’t know the writer’s name anymore, but, a decade ago, writer sent in this beautiful story that involves Disney stuff. And it was like behind the scenes of a Disney movie kind of thing. And we sat there thinking, we want to publish this. We love this, it’s so good. And we do not have the resources to get into a legal battle with the Disney Corporation, which is notoriously litigious. And we wrote to the writer and we’re like, we’re so sorry we can’t publish this and this is why, like the magazine would go under, so.
[Ada Palmer] In the later period of the purview of the Comics Code Authority, which was surveilling American comic books, but when it’s weakening, so in the 1990s in particular. The censorship is supposed to be there to restrict depictions of sexual behavior or depictions of violence and also in its original thing to restrict depictions of corruption or bad behavior among officers of the US government were not allowed to be depicted in comics for a while. But later on, none of those were actually getting picked on at all. It was, if your character in your indie comic looks too much like Wolverine, you will get Marvel coming down on you for infringing their copyright, by doing something that looks too much like Wolverine. And so when, when you talk with Larry Marder and others who work on comics in that period, the covers they had to worry about were the ones that resembled too much of the big titles rather than anything that was racy or violent, which would pass with no problem. So copyright is a far fiercer organ for censorship, at least within the US, where government censorship isn’t allowed. But they can sure bite you financially. Question is about Amazon practicing censorship, which it totally does.
[Mary Anne Moharanj] Totally, in a variety of ways. Then a lot of them are economics, so yeah. Do you want to, you may know more —
[Ada Palmer] You should tell the Hachette story.
[Cory Doctorow[ Yeah, that’s a good story. The big five publishers, then the big six publishers had all done 10 year deals with Amazon and the first of those two wrap up with Hachette, which is a big French company that owns Little Brown, Orbit much other giant presses around the world. And they wanted to renegotiate their terms and Amazon didn’t like the deal and so they said, fine, you don’t get to sell our e-books anymore. And they said, we’re not selling any of your books anymore. When people search for your books, we will direct them to used copies or other writers’ books from other publishers, including Harry Potter. And they said, let’s see who blinks first. And a year later Hachette came back and gave them everything they asked for, and two weeks after that, Random House, which is the largest publisher in the world by the Bertelsmann family. For all that it’s largest publisher in the world, the Bertelsmann families, like their major investment are in things like arms dealing, they are not considered to be wilting lilies, caved in completely and gave Amazon everything they wanted. So yeah, market power is pretty powerful. Amazon also has a copyright take down system that is on the one hand, it’s extremely erratic. So, when book like additions, My Books go up on Amazon, it can take weeks to have them removed. But at the same time, people who send take-downs to works that they don’t own, purely as that kind of hoax censorship, like they invoke copyright falsely in order to enact censorship. Amazon has a bad track record for doing it. And then the best one is that, so copyright’s a bit of a patchwork. It’s like plus 70 years here, it’s like plus 50 through most of the Anglo-sphere. Not in Canada anymore thanks to President Trump who just renegotiated Canada’s copyright as part of the new NAFTA deal. So there are lots of places in the world where Orwell is in the public domain, but America. So in one of those places, someone took a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and sold it on Amazon for 99 cents, which you can do. You can sell public domain books for any price. You can also give them away, and lots of people in America bought them and the Orwell estate complained. And Amazon reached into people’s Kindles and deleted their copies of 1984 because irony is not dead. And Amazon, I have with my journalist hat on, written Amazon many times, to ask them what their formal policy is for deleting books after you buy them. And, whether if you side load a book on your Kindle by directly putting it on whether Amazon can delete it, whether Amazon can delete other files from your Kindle, whether Amazon can exercise other kinds of authority, what your recourse is, if you think a file is improperly deleted by Amazon that is not present in Amazon’s terms of service and they will not answer those questions.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Also, keep in mind that Amazon, Facebook, Google, I mean they are, I would say more powerful than many small countries without —
[Cory Doctorow] Many big countries.
[Mary Anne Doctorow] Many big countries, right, without the protections. And without even the systemic nature you mentioned, when Cory talks about that you can get claims that something is a copyright violation and get that taken off even if it’s not true. This is is happening constantly on Facebook, on Twitter, so on, that someone says something that often the alt-right does not like and hordes descend and then pages get blocked, et cetera, so on. And they don’t have the systems in place to effectively address that. And they haven’t made it a priority to get the systems in place.
[Jamie Larue] I was talking to another friend of mine is a science fiction writer. And she said her big fear was this kind of censorship that comes from larger and larger corporations. So let’s say that she’s got her book and there are only three copies of it available, one on Google, and one on the Apple, and one on Amazon, and then somebody happens to merge with another one, then there’s only one copy that’s left that can be sold or not sold, like the Disney things will make a lot of copyright. Or it could be altered and you would never know. So I think that there is this kind of creeping background of censorship that I worry about. And I also think about this as a librarian, in 2003, we fought the Children’s Internet Protection Act took that all the way up to the Supreme Court. And they decided at that point, the Supreme Court decided that filtering was okay, it was okay to filter the Internet. And so if you took any public money for e-rate or telecommunications reimbursements from the government, they could require you to filter. Almost no one knows what’s being filtered or why. Almost all of these companies are private companies, you have no idea to what extent the government has access to these things. Every search that you do runs through a filtering program acquired by the government. If I was the NSA, I’d be watching that stuff.
[Cory Doctorow] I mean, it’s not just the NSA, those filtering companies are just war criminals. Their primary customers are repressive regimes in Sub Saharan Africa, Middle East, Asia. And then they repackage that and sell it to corporate America schools and universities and libraries. Every click that you make is off-shored to one of these companies. They have permanent records of, or they can indefinitely retain your communications, every keystroke, every everything. It’s the parental control filter business, they’re all basically just rebadged versions of repressive state censorship. They have historically, they’ve done things like invoked copyright law to prevent people from finding out what’s on their blacklists. So you couldn’t see how their blacklists were being developed. Some of them have been caught selling data on children’s Internet usage to marketing companies. So you’re a parent, you pay for a parental filter, and they spy on every click your kid makes and then they sell it to marketing companies. They capture, intercept every message your kid sends and then they sell it to a marketing company. The Internet filtering companies are a dumpster fire.
[Ada Palmer] To condense and repeat the question. The question is about how techniques for censorship and surveillance, which is always a component necessary in the forms of censorship at least that hope to affect readers, how those have changed over the course of different technologies advancing and moving toward the present. And how different the process of surveillance and of censorship might be in a premodern context versus today. And I’ll contribute a tiny beginning of an answer and then I hope any others will be leap in. But as I work on what I insistently prefer to call the plural Inquisitions rather than the Inquisition, we’re looking at the enormous challenge of trying to police spaces which aren’t directly connected to each other or centralized. So that, Rome propagandistically is the head and center of the Inquisition and claims in its documentation to be authorizing this. But it takes six months for a ship to get from Rome to Goa. And Rome has no control over what the Inquisition is doing in Goa, local centralized people who in turn answer to people in Mexico, who in turn in answer to people in Spain, who in turn theoretically answer to people in Rome are filtering this process and making lots of local decisions. And undertaking local surveillance which is governed by local interests and the local concerns of particular governors, and particular monastic orders that are rivals of other monastic orders attempting to achieve power in a space. Now, the question was largely about modern states and then corporations and how it feels in some senses if surveillance is becoming more diffuse. Because we’re not being surveilled by our state, we’re being surveilled by Google, and separately by Amazon, and separately by Apple, and separately by the NSA. And there are these different things which to me in many ways feels more plural, like a diffusion into multiple plural overlapping authorities which overlap with each other in ways very similar to how the Spanish-run Inquisition and the Roman-run Inquisition and the local censorship being practiced by the local duke or local governor overlapped each other in a premodern space as well. Such that we’ve had multiple overlapping and competing powers which carry out both censorship and surveillance in lots of spaces.
[Tony Grafton] But also sometimes collaborating.
[Ghenwa Hayek] Right?
[Tony Grafton] And he collaboration is a different aspect. The only thing is I think you have to make a sharper chronological distinction. Because traditional censorship under the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century reached levels of efficiency that no one could dream of in an early modern world. If you want to think about Brazil, Argentina, Russia, east Germany, many, many other states in the 1980s and 1990s, you’re looking at a kind of censorship which is, will seem unimaginable to Americans. And that’s very recent. There’s a lot of people still alive who lived under those regimes. And those were not the modern bio-metrics censorship. They were not based on modern media. In East Germany, every 10th member of society, every 10th person was an informant and every hundredth person is a paid informant. The Inquisition could only cry looking at that. The Inquisition, by the way, the local Inquisitions that wanted to censor books had a problem which was, to get censor the book, you had to buy a copy and they didn’t have any money to buy copies. So that was a fundamental problem in making censorship work and it was one they never really overcame as far as I know. But by the 20th century, there were regimes of censorship that are absolutely terrifyingly powerful without any of the modern media possibilities we have now. If you live in England for a while, you’d feel differently about state surveillance than you do here. It’s a really, there is nowhere you go in England where you are not in the reach of state surveillance.
[Ada Palmer] Gehnwa?
[Ghenwa Hayek] I just wanted to say, first of all, to point out that even in this context, some of us are more surveilled than others. If you are a Muslim, a person of color in the United States, you know that you are being watched and monitored and surveilled in a particular way, especially, I mean, and where you were born and what citizenship you have is irrelevant. The other thing I wanted to say about the sort of the nexus of surveillance and censorship that we often don’t notice unless it happens to us. In the context of the United States, are, for example, the laws that are currently traveling through legislative bodies and several states about, for example, censoring the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement that aims to do precisely that vis-a-vis the state of Israel and certain state institutions. And the way that that is an international, transnational lobbying effort that is being brought into a very local US context and courts. And that is feeding back into an Israeli state that is using data to turn people away at borders, turn American citizens away at borders. Currently there’s a young woman who has been in an Israeli airport prison detention for the past week because she’s trying to get into a master’s program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has her visa, she has her acceptance, she’s an American citizen and yet because she was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine in her local university chapter in Florida, she is now in detention in an Israeli jail, basically, in the airport. So, I mean it just, this is just to add to the calls to think about the local context and what remains invisible to those of us who don’t have to spend our lives thinking about this in this context, at this moment in time in the United States. And so how sometimes even these things will remain invisible to us that are very local to us as our attention is directed at other practices.
[Cory Doctorow] I wanted to talk a little bit the DDR and this character of differential surveillance and how we ended up here. So, in the former East Germany, I’ve heard different numbers, one in 60 people or so was in some way operating as a surveillance agent on behalf of the state and, that was at the peak in 1989. And they were arguably under-surveilling in the sense that they missed the fact that the wall was about to come down. If they’d done the right amount of surveillance, there’d still be a wall. And today, if we assume that everybody who has top secret clearance in America is working for the NSA on its mass surveillance project, most charitable assumption we could make in terms of efficiency, the ratio of spied upon to spies is more like one in 10,000. So we’ve had a two and a half order of magnitude increase in efficiency of mass surveillance in a generation, in 25 years. And, for me, the answer to how we got that enormous productivity gain is that we pay for the surveillance. You pay for your phone, you pay for your Internet connection. You voluntarily enter the data. You are the data entry clerk for your own surveillance file, and this is the missing link between people who say, well, what’s more dangerous, state surveillance or corporate surveillance? They’re not distinct. There would be no state surveillance if they had to foot the bill for it. There isn’t enough money in all the world and if we expect that states will ever rein in corporate surveillance, we have to first wean them off of the dependence on corporate surveillance to effect state security. And the way that that relates to contemporary censorship is that historic censorship was much less surveillant or needn’t have been as surveillant. There was a time when Ulysses was banned in the United Kingdom, so you had to put all the publishers and booksellers on warning, on notice that they couldn’t sell it or they’d face penalties. And we needed high penalties to deter them. You needed to open some parcels at the border and so on. But, if you were to ban www.ulysses.com, the only way that you could effect that ban is by having a filter that looks at every URL you visit to make sure it’s not Ulysses. So everything you do on the Internet becomes a part of a potentially permanent record as part of the project of stopping you from looking at one thing on the Internet. We don’t know how to filter one thing on the Internet without intercepting all of your traffic to make sure that it’s not the thing that we’re filtering. I think this is an underappreciated detail when we talk about filtering because we say, we’re just stopping you from looking at the bad things. We don’t acknowledge this other piece of noticing everything you do on a single wire that delivers free speech, and free press, and freedom of assembly, and access to tools, and education, and family, and political life, and civic life, and nutrition, and healthcare outcomes, and all the rest of it. All of that being siphoned through a single filter just to make sure you’re not reading James Joyce.
[Ada Palmer] We are at our midway break, so we will take an eight- to 10-minute break. I saw coffee arrive and we will resume our discussion afterward. Welcome back, and we’ll plunge into part two of our discussion. Did any of the speakers have any lingering things you would want to just say in response to the last few things? Great, we’ll just resume.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Just to start it up, I was thinking about. So I’ll go back to Sri Lanka for a minute. So we’re never going to know how the Sri Lankan government would have evolved without —
[Ada Palmer] Can you give us a two sentence overview of the people who know nothing about Sri Lanka?
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] So we’ll never know how it would have evolved without colonialism. But what Sri Lanka had was about 2000 years of a multiethnic society. In 400 BC A group of Singhalese ethnic group came down and settled there. There were some native Bengali tribespeople who are all gone now. In 100 BC Tamils came down from southern India and settled there. So a long, long time of these two groups and then some smaller other groups living together, not always harmoniously, but living together. Then we had waves of colonization, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then finally the British. And they massively disrupted the original various systems of government that were in place and the British imposed the British system. And that raised a whole set of questions about who got to vote. So I wanted to take this to voting rights. And who got to have a voice in government. And over the years there was more and more pressure on the British government to let their colonies become independent. Which raised the question of, well, what should independence look like? What is the government going to look like? Who gets to have a vote? And earlier forms had communal representation and then they were sort of, with different groups having sort of percentages that were represented in Parliament. And then they moved to much more of a, one person, one vote kind of thing, which raised huge questions around, are there sufficient protections for minority groups in this situation? Where Sri Lanka was at that point, I want to say around 70% Singhalese maybe 30% maybe 28% Tamil, and then there’s some smaller minority groups. And then the Tamils are further divided between sort of the Jaffna Tamils who were there for 2000 years, who came down originally, and then the much larger group of hill country Tamils who were brought over as laborers on first the coffee plantation, and then when the coffee blight happened, then the tea plantation. And they mostly were kept illiterate and very much the Singhalese did not want them to have a vote because they would be a pretty large representative group. So, to all of this going back to the question of who has power? Who gets to keep power? Who stays in control? Whose interests are looked after? Under the British, interestingly, like the Tamil group did okay, because the British favored them often in civil service and so some of the Jaffna Tamils like got wealthy under that. And then once independence came, all of that got kind of thrown out the window. So I want to kinda like, have all of that in the back of your head. I think that kind of pattern is common in many colonized countries around the world. And even in the non-colonized countries, this question of who gets to have a vote, I think it was a very prevalent question. And obviously women have to fight for the right to vote, African Americans had to fight for the right to vote, they had to fight to be considered entire people and not three fifths of a person here in America for the purposes of voting. If you are interested in that particular history, I cannot recommend too highly Representative John Lewis’ graphic novel March. It has a successor, Vote, that’s coming out soon, but March is this incredible history of the Civil Rights Movement. And the fight for voting rights as told through his own personal experience, which culminates in him being badly beaten on a bridge as he’s trying to go exercise his right to vote. If you don’t know that history, go look it up. And, I think that kind of the sort of explicit attempts that people made to take away voting rights from different groups in earlier eras and just say no, you’re not allowed to vote. We talk about in Ireland, we talk about Ireland as a post-colonial country because similar things happened there, where the Catholic vote was just taken away. If you’re Catholic, you don’t get to vote because there were the Protestant landholders that had gone over in a settlement process to maintain British power in Ireland, English power in Ireland. So when you move, I don’t know if it’s an evolution or not, but when you move to a moment where now supposedly everyone who’s an American citizen gets one vote and an equal vote, then how did the people in power manage to keep you from exercising your right to vote? So then you get to all of the methods of blocking you from going and exercising your right to vote and they are many and manifold, from closing polling stations in majority Democrat districts. It’s happening right now —
[Jamie Larue] Voter ID.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj[ Requiring ID. If you have to have ID to vote, there are a lot of people who don’t have ID to vote. Not allowing mail-in ballots from PO boxes, which has just happened in the last week I think. And which disproportionately affects Native Americans on reservations who don’t have physical addresses and use the PO boxes. It is this massive disenfranchisement that just occurred. To things like, and this goes back into and Cory can probably talk about this more than me, this question of big data and gerrymandering and the way in which, we’ve had gerrymandering for a long time. Where different groups have tried to redraw the lines in the district to get their people more voting weight than they should theoretically have. And my understanding of it is that big data has made that incredibly efficient. And so that’s where you go to the surveillance society where like we’re now in this moment where they’ve gotten really, really, really good at telling where you are, and what you’re likely to vote as. And then how can they stop you from doing so? And there are a lot of people engaged at this very moment in stopping all of you from voting. And if you have not checked to make sure that your voter registration is still valid, you should go and check, we’re a month out from the midterms. Okay, sorry, that’s be like this is and I guess I connect this to censorship because your vote is your voice. That is what it is. This is your ability to speak is with your vote, and it is being taken away constantly. People are trying to take it away from you. Someone else should talk.
[Ada Palmer] The question is about how human rights and censorship and surveillance intersect. Anyone want to plunge in?
[Jamie Larue] So I’ve been thinking about this for a long time there was a Pan-American based study in 2016, and they went to university campuses around the country and they said, what do you, young people, college students believe? And found that support for intellectual freedom is falling and that support for social justice was rising. And I think this is very much one of the issues of our time. I started off by saying that people in power kind of push back when it’s kind of their last day and they’re losing and I think we’ve had a longstanding, white majority that kind of starts to look very uneasy and it feels uncomfortable about this. So most of the censorship challenges that I see, the things, books trying to be removed from libraries or from schools tend to be LGBT, or people of color. So I found that kind of interesting. And then the other side is that the principles that we have used as bulwarks of civilization for a long time, free speech, the right that once we open up a meeting room, anybody can come to it, most of the time those policies are used precisely to defend the marginalized populations that are most under attack. And so my belief is, and this is where the intersection comes, freedom of speech is the beginning of social justice. You have to have the right to gather, you have to have the right to complain, you have to have the right to begin to talk about things. And I think that, if those rights, freedom of assembly, peaceably address the government, all those things kind of guarantee the First Amendment. If we sacrifice that, I don’t believe that we can achieve social justice. And so I think that it’s very much the case, the free speech, fighting censorship is essential to civil rights.
[Cory Doctorow] I guess I couldn’t wait to talk about this is to talk a little about our calls for platforms to censor hate speech and harassment. For a set of complicated reasons that start 150 meters that way at the University of Chicago Business School, we don’t have any antitrust enforcement to speak of and as a result of that and other factors, we have massive concentration in the tech sector. So, even as the Internet has become the forum in which every significant public discussion we have takes place, and where all collective action to redress every social problem will start, and will be undertaken, the private choices of an increasingly small number of firms have become much more salient to our public decisions. And there’s a kind of sloppy version of the should the platforms conduct anti-harassment or other forms of a bad speech policing or shouldn’t they? That says platforms aren’t the government, the First Amendment only applies to government, therefore it’s not censorship. And the place where those lines don’t connect is that the only form of censorship is not state censorship. There are other forms of censorship and that government inaction, that is to say, allowing concentration in our communication sector so that we only have four places where we talk anymore is a form of government action. The failure to enforce the antitrust laws that were enforced until about 1982 for the last 40 years is an action taken by the government, a decision taken by the government, and this has led to a situation where we have these concentrations in speech. And this is a fact that it’s actually not escaped people who are not harassing for away jerks for a long time. My friend Jillian Young, who’s an EFF staffer who lives in Berlin, says that when we worry about Facebook policing speech, we’re not saying first they came for the Nazis and I said nothing because I wasn’t a Nazi. We’re saying, first they came for the trans activists, and then they came for the Indigenous people, and said that the things were at their real names, and then they came for the women’s fleeing domestic violence who didn’t want to tip their stalkers after where they were, and then they came for black rights activists, and said that they were hate groups, and then they came for people who were organizing against police violence, and then they came for the Nazis, and finally we’re saying something. And it’s sad that the only time we started saying something is when they came for the Nazis. But when Facebook tells you that they have purged 7 million accounts for Terms of Service violations, but they won’t tell you what those accounts are or what the Terms of Service violations are, they have no due process system and they’re the place where all of our civil discourse is taking place, God help us all, that has a human rights dimension. It has a human rights dimension in the form, like, you can actually see this play out really vividly in Cambodia. So Facebook infamously has this real names policy where you can’t use Facebook unless you use your real name, whatever a real name is. And in 2013, the hegemonic government, authoritarian government of Cambodia came as close as they’ve come in a generation to losing an election, because of an opposition that organized on Facebook. So they got really smart and there’s an extremist partisan news site on Facebook that they feed news to, that’s effectively a state organ. They got really, really good at rules lawyering Facebook’s anti hate speech and real names policy. And opposition figures, who speak on Facebook, if they crossed the line that is extremely well understood by the Cambodian government’s own internal policing force, Facebook gets a very detailed complaint that explains why they have to terminate the opposition figure’s account. They also, because the opposition figure’s using their real name, know where to find them and put them in jail. Opposition figures who speak anonymously are kicked off Facebook immediately because the Cambodian government goes to Facebook and says, we know who all the people in Cambodia are, that’s not a real person, they’re using a fake name, you have to kick them off. They won their 2018 reelection by a landslide. So, the ability to access civil justice is a function of social power. When we create civil justice systems that are expedited because certain things are so far beyond the pale that we just want them to be policed against immediately then the people who have the most power have the most time to figure out how to use those civil justice systems. And so, it is almost inevitably a form of putting your thumb on the scale for the people who are already in power. The first time written anti hate speech laws were exercised, it was against black women who are criticizing the police.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I would also, as an example on campus that comes up a lot. Like if a campus group invites Milo Yiannopoulos or someone else like that to come and speak. This question arises, like should the university be giving this person a platform? And the kind of free speech arguments says, well, someone invited him to come, he should get to come and speak. And the person in me who was a young queer student and who now mentors young queer students and is furious on their behalf, just the fact that they have to possibly walk through the gauntlet to get to their class, would really love to say Milo just don’t come, don’t invite him, don’t let him come on our campus. But, I would argue that that will actually, if you mount that kind of campaign, it will give him a lot more attention. He will, as we were speaking before, he’ll sell a lot more books as a result. You will in fact be putting money into his pocket and what the ACLU actually recommends for this kind of thing is rather than showing up and protesting, hold your own event elsewhere on campus, make it bigger, make it better, have a massive pride party on the other side of campus and starve him with attention. And so I think one of the things you’ll hear is like the best way to counter bad speech is with more speech. And, I struggle with that sometimes because sometimes the original bad speech has masses of money and a big political machine behind it, and can my little more speech actually compete with that. But mostly I end up saying that still the way what we have to try to do.
[Cory Doctorow] I actually think there’s some evidence that no platforming works. Milo Yiannopoulos says it works. He says the reason he’s broke is that no one will handle transactions for him, and no one will place ads for him, and he can’t get speaking gigs anymore. So for me, it’s actually not a philosophical opposition to no platforming. It’s a completely, like, instrumental concern that if you create a system that doesn’t have checks and balances for deciding who gets to speak and when, and removing people from the public sphere. That just generally speaking, powerful people are better at using those systems than powerless people that we want to defend from them. And so, I’m not saying those systems are never appropriate, I’m just saying that if you don’t take that into consideration, you have no business being surprised when the first person it gets turned against you.
[Ada Palmer[ Because this is, oh, we’ll take a question in a second, because this has been a hot issue specifically here on campus for the past couple of years since the publication of the University of Chicago’s new announcement of having speech code, and anti-safe-spaces, and anti-trigger-warnings, and then the series of protests about the invitation of Steve Bannon to speak on campus, which may or may not ever occur, but certainly the protest itself and the fact of the invitation has been a huge subject. I’ve had numerous long, multi hour sit down debates with students about this. And over and over I found that heated groups of students will be attacking each other, on this extremely polarizing issue. And I have found it helpful to frame it in terms of a study that was done, I think five years ago on optimism in hamsters. And It wasn’t just the findings of the study, but actually the framing of the study that is useful for thinking about this. So they had hamsters and you give the hamsters little dishes of clear liquid which have no smell, but some of them have sugar in the water and are delicious and sweet if you lick them. And some of them had a bitter chemical in it, so if you taste it, it’s nasty. And you cannot as a hamster tell which one is going to be what until you taste it, you just have to sort of trust it and try. And they also had two different hamster habitats where they ran this test. One of which was a really comfortable hamster habitat with wheels, and bedding, and tunnels, and dim lighting because they’re nocturnal and they like that and everything a hamster could want. And the other one was bare metal, no cover, bright light, uncomfortable space.
[Jamie Larue] Fox News prison.
[Ada Palmer] And the hamsters in the comfortable habitat kept trying the liquids even after for a while they turned out to be bad, sometimes it’s good. Other times they were still prepared to taste it, to find out. And the ones with the uncomfortable habitat very rapidly gave up and would no longer try the liquids. Now, the study was about optimism and trying to get across the idea that when you have lived in a harsher and less supportive environment, you find it harder to keep trusting the world enough to try things that might hurt you. But I found it a useful way to think about the college campus and what the two sides of that debate are trying to protect. Because the people who were trying to say, we need safe spaces, we need trigger warnings, we need this to be a comfortable environment, by putting Steve Bannon’s name on a poster and having that on the wall, you’re causing pain and discomfort to every student of color and other person that Bannon’s rhetoric would say should not be here, that kind of person is trying to make the habitat comfortable. He’s trying to make sure that this habitat that we’re creating for undergraduates and graduate students to try to be the best nurturing environment possible is a comfortable habitat. Not only for the students that support Bannon, but for the students that Bannon’s message really is every time you see that poster, it tells you “you are not human, you should not be here.” And it makes that be the harsh habitat. The other students, the ones who are trying to defend an absolutist free speech policy, were trying to protect the water. And making sure there’s still the sour with the sweet, making sure that in addition to reading comfortable literature, we’re reading The Merchant of Venice, and we’re reading Kafka, and we’re reading about Nazism. And Kathleen Ballou is teaching her course on the History of Hate Groups, and the KKK because those are scary, uncomfortable things that we need to be studying. And it really was two different concerns that the two sides of the debate were trying to defend without realizing. One group trying to say, we have to have policies that will make sure there is always the sour with the sweet in the water, that we are always as objects of study engaging with thing, even things people find icky and uncomfortable. And the other is saying, this has to be a comfortable environment because if you are a student who is someone that a message from Bannon tells you, you shouldn’t be here and you walk past that poster 10 times on the way to and from your dorm every day getting repeatedly stabbed by this message, you are not human. You don’t have the strength at the end of the day to get home and read The Merchant of Venice. It is too much and you can’t take it and you can’t taste that bowl of water anymore. And both sides in this debate are absolutely right, it’s vital to develop that comfortable habitat so that we have the strength to taste the water. It’s vital to the to make sure the protections are there so that the sour is always in the water with the sweet. But the problem of trying to achieve both of these things at once was a very difficult one. Especially when we don’t realize that they’re two parallel but separate goals. Both of which are strongly affected by any attempt that we make to circumscribe what speech happens where.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj I will also say though the trigger warning thing I feel like is a misleading thing to throw into that problem because, I teach Keri Hulme’s, The Bone People, an incredible book, brutal depictions of child abuse in it. I give a trigger warning at the start of the semester, I say, hey, we’re going to be reading this book. It’s coming in at the end of the semester, you’re going to encounter this, be aware. That doesn’t let the students out of reading a book —
[Ada Palmer] And I use trigger warnings in my course as well when we assign Boccaccio. And in fact, I have two counters of Boccaccio that are marked, if sexual exploitation is triggering for you, instead of this story read this other story from Boccaccio if that’s going to be uncomfortable. But there have been schools that have mandated in the school policy, you must have trigger warning. That have then, when they have wanted to target and fire a tenured faculty member, gone through their syllabuses where there was no student complaint, picked out a work that had some kind of controversial content, said this faculty member violated the school policy against having trigger warnings and fired that faculty member. When the firing was really about the faculty member speaking up against the administration doing something unscrupulous. But it can be turned into something to victimize that faculty member. So are trigger warnings wonderful, yes. Are trigger warnings also something that an unscrupulous person in a position of power can, if they are badly legislated, exploit to silence people? Also, yes. The question is about pre-printing-press censorship in effect. And what forms of censorship such as the destruction of an idol or the destruction of a meeting place that are technologies that are pre-printing-press forms of censorship, how they can also be considered in this genealogy or chronology of censorships development.
[Jamie Larue] Seems like we need a historian answer on this.
[Tony Grafron] Well, they’re certainly within monastic orders, for example, very easy means of imposing censorship in the literary production and the discussions of the order. So, in certain circumstances certainly, but it’s obviously much more difficult if you don’t have a system of registration for publication as you do after print. One of the things we often think, I think is that censorship is just Catholic in the early modern world. And that people often have that kind of vision because of the Inquisitions, but in fact publication has to be registered everywhere. A printer who printed the first edition of the Quran in Latin in the 1540s, Theodore Bibliander and printed it in Basel with permission. But there was such a shit storm of other Protestant authorities denouncing him that he was jailed for doing it. On the other hand, the audition wasn’t destroyed and continued to circulate. So there are certainly our efforts at censorship before modernity, the most famous ones since we talked briefly about the burning of the Talmud in 1553 is the burning of the Talmud in the middle of the 13th century in Paris and elsewhere, which already represents the kind of effort to eliminate critical Jewish texts.
[Adrian Johns] It’s probably a semantic issue about the term censorship and that, to me there’s something in that terms that implies production more than just the individual handwriting of things. It’s not that manuscripts are not suppressed or burned or something like that, I guess I feel that this is an issue with this class. It’s kind of pervaded for the 10 weeks, which is what’s the extension of that term censorship? Because we’ve taken it all just today to include things like voting rights and so forth. So I think it’s really up to whoever wants to extend it out into those periods to justify. And the one thing I was gonna say is that the other thing I think the term censorship has familiar is that it has like an epistemic constituent to it. So, it involves some notion that what we’re doing is not just, whether intentionally, but by effect, it’s not just sort of reducing the number of something, but you’re actually having an impact on culture, on ways of thinking, on the content of thought. And in that sense that the bell rings in my mind is with Iconoclasm with the Puritans and Protestants where loosely one says, look, the Iconoclasts went through and destroyed statues, angels, things like that. But in Middle East, it’s quite common, if you go through travel around parish churches and you see the remnants of when the Puritans went through and did these acts of destruction. They not just that they destroyed, they do things like they gouge the eyes out. So it’s actually kind of disturbing to see sometimes if you go into a church and you see these remains of what was, say, an image of a saint or an angel. And somebody really gone at it with passionate, and kind of gouged out the eyes of it. And that to me gets close to it because it’s clear that there’s something to do with culture, intellectual content, it’s not just that you’re reducing the number of wooden figures in the world.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj I was just going to jump on the monastic element in Sri Lanka, that we have 2000 years of written history, the Palivamsas and, but they were written by Buddhist monks and there were rival monks who would come into power and would rewrite them. So, if the only document is then completely rewritten by your opponents and then that happens again 100 years later, over and over again, there’s a way in which some information is being blocked from reaching the present day. Steven Kemper has an essay on this in The Presenceo Of The Past, is, I think, the anthology.
[Tony Grafton] The other thing we should we should do is not thinkingWwestern terms. So in China, which has printing and wide possibilities of distributing literature and larger quantities much earlier than the West. There are also systematic moments of censorship at which their imperial efforts to cleanse the cannon and those clearly would be censorship.
[Adrian Johns[ Yeah, sure.
[Ada Palmer] I think a good way to think of it is that mass production of information in the form of printing transforms the way you have to go about censorship and what censorship’s goals can be. I just wrote a brief history of book burning and post printing press arriving in Europe. There are virtually no cases, very, very few cases of an effort to do what I call eradication burning i.e, trying to actually physically destroy every copy of a text. Because when it can be mass produced so quickly and easily attempting to do that is really hard. And I was just working on a case in Portugal which was the publication of an early Enlightenment treatise criticizing Jesuit education and arguing for Enlightenment, what we would call early liberal arts education. And, the Jesuit authorities who in that particular part of Portugal were in charge of censorship, found out where this was being printed in advance and made a very sophisticated attempt to go in and actually destroy the whole physical print run, which is as good as you can get after print. Once things are disseminated, it’s hopeless pretty much, but it’s about as good as you can get, and they got it. So we have about six copies of this that survive from the first printing, all of which except maybe one survived by having the print shop people hastily rip off the title page and slap a different title page on. And the inquisitors who were burning, taking the books, didn’t take that book because it was a different book. And that lets a couple of copies survive. And then the second edition was printed by one of the Jesuit censors whose job it was to destroy the thing. And that was his day job and he did it, but he also apparently kept the treatise and read it and liked it and printed it again. And that is as close really as you can get to an eradication burning post printing press. The combination of the innumerable copies quickly and not cheaply, but comparatively cheap relative to manuscript, plus human beings who make decisions, especially given that inquisitors, sensors, etc, these are educated people. These are educated young people, a lot of them are the equivalent of fresh out of college, you needed the job, who’s hiring? The Inquisition is hiring. Or who’s hiring? The king censor support is hiring. Who’s hiring? The printer’s guild censors are hiring. They hire hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of young fresh out of college intellectuals who have ideas. And they might be on the conservative end of the spectrum perhaps, but they certainly have ideas and exercise intercession on what they protect and what they don’t, and protect each other’s materials as they’re being censored. So you have these huge human sieves that let materials fall through, which is very different from the sieve of an automated program. If you program the Internet to filter, that has different failure modes, different escape modes from human beings as team works escape modes. But if you look at that pre-printing-press, you have genuinely efficacious eradication burnings. Where, Pope Gregory is it the IX, who says we’re going to burn Sappho. I have authority to write to all of the major capitals “gather together all of the copies of Sappho there are only 11 or however many right, and we’re going to burn all of them.” And indeed, we don’t have that Sappho anymore, we have little tiny fragments from other things, but that worked. And that is a mode of censorship that bodies like the Inquisition posts printing press hardly ever even try anymore because you know that it can’t do that. If you’re going to try to destroy information, you can burn a library. You can burn the collection which has gathered together a whole bunch of materials to create a resource to make scholarship possible and you can thereby prevent the future scholarship that that collection would have produced. You’re going to have what I would call a collection burning, which is very efficacious for preventing new material but is not destroying unique objects except for manuscript objects. You can have a very common form in modern days is burnings of state archives. Which genuinely do contain the only archived copy of X, Y, Z document of people. And then you have symbolic burnings where Nazis are going through the street and they’re burning the libraries of the people that they’re persecuting. And they know perfectly well they’re never going to burn every copy of the Talmud, just as many of their predecessors have never succeeded in burning every copy of the Talmud. And if you look at the activities of Nazis during a book burning, they don’t even try, like they don’t really thoroughly try to hunt down every copy of the thing. What they want is a big pile of books to have a parade around to scare everyone. And the fear and the consequent changes of behavior that that causes are the new prudence of censorship. Whereas before mass production of texts, you could have effective eradication operations. And before long distance travel, you could also have an effective, or fairly effective, policing of a small region of the area over which you, the duke of this town, have power. You can exercise reasonably efficacious and consistent power over that town, that city, that tiny region, but once you have sprawling empires, it becomes impossible. And the Spanish Inquisition in Spain is not the Spanish Inquisition in Central America, is not the Spanish Inquisition in any other Spanish colony because communications doesn’t make that possible.
[Cory Doctorow] In the last Canadian government, the 12 years of Stephen Harper’s conservative government, they had an official climate denial policy, much of their power base came from the tar sands in Alberta. And they embarked on a national archive digitization plan that for some reason involved incinerating the archived material after it was digitized. And by an amazing coincidence, a lot of the climate data was incinerated prior to digitizing, including handwritten 300 years worth of ships logs that track the avenfer winter ice in the Northwest Passage, which is a key piece of climate data. I think generally we attempt to digitize prior to incineration. That’s the best practice from archiving.
[Tony Grafton] Actually the best practice is–
[Group] is not to incinerate.
[Ada Palmer] The comment was about Kuwait, where there are laws on the books that can jail you or execute you for certain kinds of prohibited speech posted on social media. Facebook which requires use of real names is therefore not used much there, but everyone will have two Twitter accounts, one with their real name for socializing with friends and one with a fake name in order to be able to then have these kinds of forbidden speech without being in danger. So the question is legacy of censoring body having had power after that censorship ends. So, whether it’s colonial censorship, whether it’s religious censorship, whether it’s a regime change. The old regime in France had censorship, the new regime has different censorship et cetera.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I mean, from a legal point of view in Sri Lanka we put the Constitution in 1978. But anything that was on the books beforehand is still valid. So that whole body of British case law is still applicable, and overrides essentially the Constitution, which is a huge problem.
[Tony Grafton] If you think about it, the ending of many totalitarian regimes has not brought about a passion for free speech protections in the successor regimes. It would be hard to see that in contemporary Russia or in several of the contemporary East European states.
[Ada Palmer] And successor regimes doctrine men want to censor the political speech of the earlier regime. So in our exhibit in the special collections library, we’ve got a volume of Enlightenment scientific reviews and correspondence which has important, I would say moderate conservative for French enlightenment, so these are people who are engaging with Voltaire but disagree with Voltaire, but a very rich and engaging set of stuff. And the volume was printed with permissions in pre-revolutionary France. And then in post-revolutionary France, someone went in with scissors to cut the royal seal that gave it permission to be printed out of the front page and ink over the word king in the sentence “with permission of the king.” Because this is the new regime and we’re destroying all of the evidence of the old regime. Even though we would think of the French revolution as a liberalizing-ish force, inasmuch as it does. But Mary Anne, your comments about still having that case law, reminds me again of this situation that I’m interested in, in censorship in New Zealand where there are so many laws on the books all over the place that aren’t used. But they could be used at any point and so New Zealand still has a law on the books that it is criminal the blasphemous libel to criticize the Church of England. And this law has only been enforced once in the entire history of New Zealand in 1928 and no one enforces this law. But it could be enforced, if in 20 years there was a move in that direction, this is a tool that’s sitting around and all of our complex modern democracies have enormous numbers of old laws sitting around that haven’t been enforced that could be at any point that the will of those in power change enough that they want to implement that.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] They’re called new laws. Sorry.
[Jamie Larue] New laws.
[Cory Doctorow] It’s like a form of policy that, right, that just sits around gathering, mounting interest in the background. You don’t get the statements and then one day the bank figures out where you are and charges you for it.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I think my mic is off.
[Jamie Larue] It seemed very much like people who flee oppression. And then the minute you get yourself in a position of power, then you get to oppress all the people that were oppressing you before. Oh, what fun.
[Cory Doctorow] So I have a counterexample though. So John Gilmore, last seen in this talk building our crypto cracker for a quarter million dollars, also founded the first dial-up Internet service provider in America, an ISP called the Little Garden in San Francisco. And before the Little Garden, all of the Internet nodes in America were run by universities who had government contracts, the government, and private government contractors. And there was this messaging form as mentioned, Usenet, where Daniel Bernstein had published his strong ciphers. And Usenet was organized into different chat boards and to create a new chat board you had to have a vote and it had to be approved by the administrators and they were sorted into a hierarchy. There was talk, and sports, and recreation, and science, and so on. What there wasn’t was sex. Every one of these administrators lived in fear of someone standing up on the floor of Congress and saying, why is the National Science Foundation funding sex, dirty talk? And so John, when he started the Little Garden, he said, I am going to make a hierarchy called alt. And the difference between alt and all the other hierarchies is that anyone can start an alt news group about anything and there are no votes and no moderator approvals. Other nodes can pick it up or not if they want, if you’re a university and you’re worried about this stuff, don’t carry the alt hierarchy, but we’re going to carry the alt hierarchy. So, this is government censorship coming to an end. Within a year, alt was bigger than the rest of the Internet combined, and everybody carried it. And it pretty much set the free speech norms that, for better or for worse, that we have on the Internet today. So I guess the answer is sometimes it depends.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Just have to tell you guys, so I did my undergrad here and I discovered the newsgroups at Harper :ibrary and you had to go through and either say yes or no the first time you subscribed to every group. So you’d say, no, I don’t have an interest in this. No, I don’t have, to just to pick the ones you want it. So then I hit the alt ones and then all the alt sex ones, which there were a long list of them and you had to go through and say yes or no, yes or no. And I ended up writing erotica, joining the group, writing erotica, it was the start of my career really was in Harper Library because of this. And then a few years later the Communications Decency Act came around to bring it back to censorship, where the government was freaking out that there was sex on the Internet. And I was interviewed on TV about it and it was like everyone was like, oh my God, this thing called the Internet, what do we do about it? And we had this moment, I know, right? They were very upset about it,
[Cory Doctorow] You’re talking dirty.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I know, but there was a moment where we’re all like our webpage which had like, sexually explicit stories or whatever on them could potentially become illegal if Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. And all of the erotic writers were like, are we willing to go to jail for this? Which was nothing we’d ever set out to have to decide and some people took their pages down, that sort of preemptive self-censorship. Some of us, myself included, signed up for the nanny filters, that said like, oh, I’m going to say my pages has adult content. So, that’ll be like a preemptive, like now people won’t stumble across sexual material accidentally. And the thing is, is that those things have long-term consequences. So like, 23 years later I ended up shutting down that page and starting a new one with a different domain name because that page was still being filtered by all these random corporate things. And so people couldn’t access my website where I’m now talking about very different things most of the time, through work. Because it was being blocked by the work filters which are just bought wholesale. So, I guess my point here is that once we start getting into the technological censorship and these methodologies that are very different from an individual person in the government deciding something, it can have very far reaching, unpredictable manifestations.
[Tony Grafton] One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen was in the Googleplex 10 or 12 years ago. They used to project the title of every Google search being made all over the world. And it was incredibly depressing as it would be Ada Palmer seeking “obscure humanist” and then 60 of the most scatological, hideous, pornographic, sadomasochistic things. And then James Hankins seeking “may obscure manuscript,” the proportion of erotic and very much lower than erotic was immense and they stopped projecting it.
[Ada Palmer] I think that’s one of the things that’s evolved as well because the early Internet suddenly made it possible easily and anonymously to access something that society had created enormous barriers between you and accessing. And so that became an early killer app of the Internet, but now cat pictures outnumber pornography online because it’s being used as a way to access everything. And we’re accessing even more of the things that we like more broadly. So in a sense those early snapshots that are the source of the phrase “the Internet is for porn,” the Internet was for porn when the Internet wasn’t for very many things. Now that the Internet is for a gazillion things, I think porn is a huge and significant component of it, but much less huge slice of the pie since so much more has moved into the realm of being online.
[Tony Grafton] Should ask Google to put this feature back.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah.I don’t know if anyone —
[Tony Grafton] You’d get a lot of cats.
[Ada Palmer] Has ever used it, but there’s a wonderful program, the music of Wikipedia updates. It’s this program that has turned the global updating of Wikipedia into a music synthesizer and every time anybody updates Wikipedia it plays a beautiful flute music tone of a different length and pitch depending on the length of the edit. And it just makes this beautiful celestial music of the spheres chorus that is literally the evolution of human knowledge on Wikipedia moving along and you can just listen to it as a sort of zen background music.
[Cory Doctorow] John Gilmore again, to quote from the gospel of St John has a lovely little speech about why the Internet was for porn. And he says, it’s not that people who are interested in sex are necessarily interested in technology. It’s people whose communication is more fraught, is harder to make, whose communication is more policed or bears more consequences, are willing to expend extra effort to figure out how to communicate it in channels that are safer. And so, the reason that you see all kinds of heterodoxy on the Internet at a point at which the Internet is not being policed is because it is people who have heterodox views are people who bear a very, very high cost to communicate through normal channels. But the novel channel is actually cheaper. The cost of figuring out how to use the Internet is lower than the cost of the everyday use of the postal service and the mails and the public square for kids and terrorists and queers and people with radical political beliefs and pornographers and racists and everybody else whose speech is fraught. And to bring this back to the hard cases making bad law and inadvertent fallout from speech policing. It’s very hard to design a system that is amenable to heterodox thought that you agree with and not to heterodox thought that you disagree with. Not because that’s a hard call to make, I mean, I definitely know when I see it, but because the systems themselves in order to be flexible enough to accommodate kids being kids and pornographers being pornographers, it’s really hard to figure out how you’d make them not accommodate racists being racist.
[Ada Palmer] So the question is about how some Internet censorship policies, some legislated, some social, some technological, a variety of force people to move to anonymity in order to be able to speak and how that can then be used to deal to de-legitimize speech. Comments on anonymity, or perhaps in fact, in the historical context. I know that both Tony and Adrian have fascinating examples of anonymity as a tool in the Greek Revolution and ways that it de-legitimizes speech as well.
[Tony Grafton] So anonymity has been a weapon often particularly for oppressed people or people of small, whose views are held by only a small number of others. When Michael Servetus is burned a printer and a theologian in Geneva put out a collection of arguments from ancient authorities that burning somebody doesn’t actually refute their arguments. And they’re able to do that because of the anonymity of the printing. So, it can be a strength, but I was just thinking as most of you probably know, more and more your social media will be policed by anybody who thinks of employing you, or indeed allowing you to enter a professional school. And that is going to push all sorts of people who don’t think of themselves as marginal in any way, people who belong to the elite and future elite of societies to anonymize themselves if they want to stay in bubble. I think it’s pretty clear that within five or six years, anything you have on social media will be being scanned by any law school, any medical school, any professional licensing society.
[Ghenwa Hayek] Some countries.
[Tony Grafton] Countries.
[Cory Doctorow] US border patrol.
[Tony Grafton] And that kind of anonymizing is a censorship that’s forcing you to keep your opinions to yourself or publicize them only as someone else ventriloquizing.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] I just wanted to make sure we had the anonymous, pseudonymous, and then real name because I think the pseudonym part is really important. Like sometimes you need true anonymity, but if Facebook for example, allowed pseudonyms, then you could build up a persona that let you speak and have an impact, that people would know this is one person speaking ideally. And like that’s a useful element that sometimes gets lost.
[Jamie Larue] I just want to jump in and say, I know that there’s been a lot of work in libraries to do anonymous browsers like the Tor browser. And it’s also the case that we’re getting a lot of smuggled censored materials from various countries where it would be death for them to admit that they have these things. And so there’s anonymous kind of Dropbox sorts of things, electronic Dropboxes. So I’m not sure what I think about all these things just yet. I know that use of the Tor browser is in many respects probably violates some of these court decisions. And that kind of bypasses some of the ways we do things and there’s always a trade-off with using some of these anonymizing tools where things get slower and now when you feel like you paid for that kind of privacy. And I suspect that this is going to be a place where we talk a lot more about what tools we can use to curate our digital life and kind of clean it up for our employers to look at in the future.
[Cory Doctorow] I had a shift in my own view of what both privacy and anonymity tools are useful for in the context of oppressive states and justice. Where I think I started with a relatively naive view that maybe we could lead a parallel existence, that we could, through the use of strong secrecy and maybe steganography that hides the existence of the message, just have an intellectual life that was free and open underneath the nose of the authority. And the thing that’s become more and more apparent is that in security, advantage goes to the attacker. So for you to remain anonymous for the long term, you have to never make a mistake. For someone to unmask you, they have to find one mistake you’ve made. It’s much easier for them than it is for you. And when we talk about anonymity, I mean there are lots of problems with anonymity. As a technical matter, one of the ones that is just only starting to come to the fore is the problem with stylometry, where computational analysis of your speech style can often unmask you. And, sometimes we’re not sure exactly how great of a threat that will be. There’s a whole field called adversarial stylometry, where you use the same stylometric tools that might be used to unmask you to make your text appear like it came from someone else. Some people speculate that anonymous White House insider op-ed may have deliberately chosen words that Mike Pence is known for using in order to throw off the scent. Computationally, you can do that much more efficiently. But for me, I’ve come to the view that anonymity and privacy tools are useful because they open a space in autocratic systems or unjust systems in which we can briefly conduct the business of creating collective action to call for a more legitimate and responsive state. That ultimately the former crypt analysis that none of us can withstand is rubber hose cryptoanalysis. Which is when someone ties you to a chair and he beats you with a rubber hose until you tell them what your keys are. And the only countermeasure against rubber hose crypt analysis is a just and responsive legitimate state. There is no key length that will make rubber hose cryptoanalysis irrelevant. And so, I think of it tactically now, not as an end, but of a means.
[Ada Palmer] There are certainly many premodern situations, I’m thinking primarily of England’s censorship policies in the 16th century and 17th century where they try hard to ban anonymous publication. They try hard to demand you may print things, we’re not going to have pre-press censorship, but you have to put your name and your address on it. So that if you are judged to have done something that is counter to what the state’s interests are or harmful to people, we will come for you. So, the premodern societies are anxious about anonymity and very conscious of the value of anonymity. We are also conscious of the power and value of anonymity. But as Cory points out in the digital world, our capacities for this are changing or in the high-tech world, our capacities for this are changing. Even the act of printing up a single-sheet leaflet and distributing it around campus was pretty anonynimitable even a few decades ago, when you were doing it with a Xerox machine. But it’s getting much, much harder because computers track who has printed what, libraries track who has been using a Xerox machine. Libraries strive to not track who has been doing what and this is one of the things that the US government and its library system are going to be fighting over is librarians want to not keep records of this material in order to help protect people’s anonymity. But that if we want to maintain a space where anonymity can be used as a tool, we have to actively try to carve out that protection because the advance of technology is making that harder and harder.
[Cory Doctorow] The first rights control system for e-books, for the Palm Pilot put your name and the credit card number you used to buy the e-book in the e-book allegedly indelibly so that if you shared the e-book, you’d share your credit card number. Contemporary versions of that, I’m sure you’ve seen watermark the PDF with your name and email address, for similar purpose.
[Ada Palmer] The question it’s about how to achieve a good balance in protecting copyright without creating tools that can be used for censorship in a say.
[Cory Doctorow] So I actually think that there is at least a sub domain in which Amazon could find it really easy to police copyright. Because they have author pages where you can register yourself as the author and there’s a little step you take, an authentication step you take, and they’ll build a webpage to help promote your books. And I think that if someone else uses the account associated with an author page to a report a book published under that author’s name as a counterfeit, then Amazon could do an expeditious take down with a relatively high degree of confidence that it’s not spurious. If they’re already convinced that I’m Cory Doctorow and they’re convinced that a book was written by Cory Doctorow, then they should believe me when I say that book is a counterfeit. And I mean there are other ways you could figure out whether it passed the giggle test. Like you could say, do you have a copy of this published by Macmillan, and then another copy published by some rando using Amazon’s self-publishing platform and the author saying that second one is a counterfeit. That again, feels like a really easy question for them to adjudicate. There are harder questions. Like me claiming that a foreign edition shouldn’t be sold on Amazon because of my rights deal with the publisher. And I think that they’d be within their rights to say, send us the contract or get a court order even. I worked at a bookstore, people didn’t get to just walk into the bookstore waving a contract and say “you’re not allowed to sell that book.” We would say,” that’s great. Go find a judge and explain it to them and come on back.” But by the same token, Amazon can and should staff up a group of people willing to at least evaluate whether or not a copyright claim passes the giggle test. So, if I write in and say, “this book infringes my copyright, I demand that you remove it.” They should at least make like a kind of cursory examination before they, under section 512 of the DMCA, they have to take it down or be a party to any eventual copyright lawsuit. But they should, I mean they should follow what Google has started doing with YouTube, which is say like, “actually we’re going to look at this and see whether or not you have any colorable claim. Clearly, you are not William Shakespeare or Norman Mailer or whoever you’re claiming to be. I’m sorry, we’re leaving it up.” Like I think that’s a better balance —
[Ada Palmer] But that requires human labor and one of the things that companies want to eliminate is human labor. They would love to have one techie with a computer instead of 500 sensible people who are looking at your claim and saying you are not William Shakespeare.
[Cory Doctorow] And Amazon actually has a much easier job than say YouTube. Like YouTube has two orders of magnitude more unique items than Amazon does in terms of books, in terms of copyrighted works. So, like, they literally need to put one percent of the work in that YouTube does to make similar adjudications. I think it’s much thornier when you talk about things like Twitter or Facebook where you’re creating take down regimes for a corpus that’s so big that even if a tiny fraction of their tracks take downs, you could still provide full employment for everyone with a copyright law degree in the world till the heat death of the universe and still not be able to evaluate all of those claims. But Amazon has a relatively tractable problem just considering copyrighted works within its book and music store, video store.
[Ada Palmer] Now unfortunately we’re really low on time, so with our very, very last time, I was going to suggest that every speaker recommend a couple of things to read, whether primary sources or secondary sources that this discussion has made you think of that people can turn to for further step. Maybe we can start with Ghenwa.
[Ghenwa Hayek] Off the top of my head I can’t, but I did send Ada an article by Talal Asad a few weeks ago and you should’ve had —
[Ada Palmer] Yeah, you’ve all read that article.
[Ghenwa Hayek] So that was the one thing I thought of when I was invited to do this.
[Ada Palmer] Anyone else want to go?
[Tony Grafton] If I were going to recommend one book, it would be an old book by Noel Perrin, Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy.
[Ada Palmer] Say that again.
[Tony Grafton] Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy by Noel Perrin, which is a charming book about censorship. The Bowdler family made bowdlerizing, that is censoring Shakespeare, into a family industry. They all did it and they produced endless additions of what was called the Family Shakespeare, which was Shakespeare made harmless. And Perrin though he certainly is not on the side of bowdlerizing, tries to contextualize and make understandable this enterprise. One of the most just human studies of censorship I know. And I think that’s the other thing I would say, the thing about censors is there is a meaning to what they’re doing. They’re not simply a Mel Brooks in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, playing Torquemada. And if you don’t know that, I highly recommend that too. It’s magnificent. But one of the things censors wanted in the early modern period was just to get things right. And a vast amount of the effort and actual censorship was saying this is a factual error, this is an error in date, this name is wrong. And the censor really saw the task as one not of eliminating things, but of purifying them so that the world of letters was rather like Lord Reith’s BBC. And Perrin really gets you into that frame and helps you understand it, in a way that is hard for us, but I think can really be helpful.
[Cory Doctorow] I think you folks read at John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. He wrote a longish article for the Whole Earth Review around the same time called “Crime and Puzzlement.” And it tells the story of when Apple called up the FBI to complain that someone had broken into one of their servers and stolen some source code for their graphics subroutine and put it on some hacker dial-up bulletin board systems. And the FBI didn’t really understand what this meant, but somehow they got the impression from Apple that this meant that if you took a floppy disk with this code from a $5,000 Macintosh and you stuck it in a $300 PC, that it would kind of grow inside the PC, like a fungal culture, and turn the PC into a $5,000 Macintosh. This is the Crime and Puzzlement, this is the puzzlement of the Crime and Puzzlement. So, these people flew to John Perry Barlow’s ranch in Wyoming to ask him about this because he had written about hanging out with hackers. and because someone had mailed him a floppy disk with the source code. And it’s the article that led to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And if you want to see the collision between people who think they’re doing good and don’t quite understand what’s going on and are half King Kanudi and half inspector Clouseau, it is a really wonderful essay and Barlow, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is a hell of a writer. So it’s a treat to read.
[Mary Anne Mohanraj] Every time I talk with Cory or read one of his books, I ended up terrified. And there’s this kind of like, oh my God, there’s all of this horrible stuff happening that I have not been paying attention to. And so that makes me think about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is an incredible graphic novel about Iran and the way in which society changes underneath you when you are comfortable and not looking.
[Jamie Larue] So two things. One of them was Connie Willis wrote a wonderful short story called Ado and it’s about public education and censorship. So, when teachers want to teach something, they have to run the text of what they want to teach through the censor to churn out what has been in litigation and courts in the United States and it’s censorship as comedy. So take a look at that. And then the other thing is I recently ran across, and I’m not even sure I could tell you where I saw it, but it was letters between Orwell and Huxley about the difference between 1984 and Brave New World. And in essence, Huxley was saying that he thought that the kind of grim censorship surveillance of 1984 wouldn’t happen because it wasn’t necessary. That with Brave New World we could distract people into their own imprisonment. And I like to think that this might be the biggest censorship challenge of the next stage, which is enjoying ourselves to death, or reality TV as a way of self-censorship.
[Jamie Larue] I like to say we can get Huxleyed into the full Orwell too.
[Ada Palmer] And you’ve got 12 pages of my required book recommendations for the course, but one that Mary Anne has reminded me of that that’s relevant here is Showa, S-H-O-W-A. This is a four-volume graphic novel history of Japan from the 1920s to the 1980, but the first volume is specifically the 1920s. And you’re seeing a situation very similar to the situation in the US right now, where a lot of short term self-interested political decisions made by particular individuals or groups trying to retain power ended up with the gradual polarization and eventually militarization and toxicity of Japan’s culture that leads into World War II. But, in the middle of it, you see how Japan’s censorship and oppressive regimes make it very easy for these people to also silence all resistance. So, it’s fascinating to hear, compared to right now where we’re seeing very, very similar political changes whether very loud, robust resistance discourse. Because of a different apparatus of how both state and society view rebellious speech. So Showa, S-H-O-W-A, Shigeru Mizuki.
[Cory Doctorow] Ordering it right now.
[Ada Palmer] And we will see you next week. Thank you all.
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