10/01/2011 11:31 EDT | Updated 12/01/2011 05:12 EST

Banning Books in the Age of Information


On Jan. 25, Twitter's website became inaccessible in Egypt. Protestors, who had gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in other cities across the country, quickly responded by using proxies and other services to communicate with one another. The government moved the following day to restrict access to Google and to Facebook, where groups including We are all Khaled Said -- founded by Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim -- had become a key points for protesters to organize and share information.

On Jan. 27, the Egyptian government shut down the country's official Domain Name System, applied pressure to the country's four internet service providers, and took other measures to effectively disable the Internet for the entire country and sever it from the rest of the world.

The relationship between power and information has always been taut and laced with danger. It has always pushed the boundaries of technology. During the Reformation, illegal publications circulated along the river trade routes of Europe alongside an explosion in literacy and the spread of the printing press. The social and intellectual unrest associated with this information revolution plunged a continent into decades of war and revolution.

We are living through a change in communications technology every bit as extensive as the invention of movable type, with far-reaching implications for censorship and the control of ideas.

With the explosion of digital reading, governments and institutions seeking to outlaw books are no longer just confronted with the logistical challenges: how to intimidate publishers and distributors; how to restrain booksellers; how to inspect goods at borders; how to destroy confiscated copies. The terrain now includes Internet Service Providers and hard drives, remote servers and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, international eBook retailers and libraries with extensive digital collections. As all these mechanisms of digital reading expand, it will become much, much harder for authorities to ban books or otherwise prevent people from reading them. Books can be distributed in seconds, and read from devices that do not display their contents across the front and can even be password-protected.

These new circumstances apply to state governments working against political sedition, to school boards and municipal authorities attempting to influence the reading materials of increasingly tech-savvy teenagers.

As a result, those wishing to combat censorship have powerful tools at their disposal. When a Missouri school board banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, the Vonnegut Memorial Library offered free copies to students. Imagine the same scenario taking place electronically, instantaneously distributing copies to a select or a general audience.

Instant distribution also dramatically expands the power of word of mouth. Often the banning of books takes place less to prevent the actual reading of a book, but instead as an opportunity for a person or a body to establish their own political, social, cultural, or moral position. It's a publicity stunt, a way for a politician, school board, or a government to show that they are not in favour of the politics or lifestyle expressed in a book. An ambitious young district attorney might seek to limit the importation of a Howl, or Ulysses, or The God of Small Things, in order to make a name for themselves ahead of an election.

There is an implicit gamble here: that the extra publicity adhering to the cited book may drive readers' desire to read it, but if the physical distribution of that book is limited -- by power, coercion, influence, or simply by supply chain realities -- the authority can receive more coverage than the book it is rejecting. People simply won't be able to get a copy of the book in question -- and in the meantime the would-be censors have defined themselves in the public mind, raising funding or winning elections with the support of those that agree.

But in a world where technologies allow one-click circulation of information -- instantaneously, impulsively, and across borders -- that gamble is now lopsided. An extra dose of publicity -- and word-of-mouth power of social media -- can lead to an unlimited amount of distribution for the book in question.

This isn't a panacea: eBooks are subject to the digital divide every bit as much as the Internet at large. Access to information remains highly uneven depending on socio-economic circumstance. Initiatives like One Laptop per Child are making progress at combating this inequality, but in many parts of the world authority retains the upper hand over information. And literacy itself remains a real and present constraint upon the spread of ideas in the world.

Moreover, the potential for tracking reading remains more acute for digital reading. With physical books, evidence can always be destroyed or hidden, without leaving a trace in your digital purchase history or the activities associated with your IP address. In the future, having failed to fully erased an ePub file from your hard drive, or to have masked your IP address accessing a P2P service, may be the 21st-century equivalent of, in different times and places, being caught with a copy of The Satanic Verses or Uncle Tom's Cabin buried in your back yard. Evidence of having read a book is no longer simply its residence in your imagination.

In the weeks following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, thousands of books banned in previous decades became available again. Booksellers even offered customers discounts on books that had been unavailable for years. Reader interest that was dammed up for years was unleashed as soon as physical copies could be printed and distributed around the country. In the future, these waters may not be so easily regulated -- and the currents may be turbulent for all.