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I’ve censored the following, in protest of a bill that gives any corporation and the US government the power to censor the internet–a bill that could pass THIS WEEK. To see the uncensored text, and to stop internet censorship, visit:

What is most difficult when writing on censorship is that it includes just about everything. It is rarely anything less than a catch-all term. It casts its shadow over all branches of knowledge, from astronomy to zoology, with broad human rights implications in between. It a time-tested companion of power, be it among the Catholic Church, royals, politicians, or businessmen.

At its most infamous, censorship has placed a bull’s-eye on the most important historical advances we have made: Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo’s writings on the sun-centered universe. It has also called attention to some of the worst trespasses against individual rights: why else surpress descriptions of hard labor in the Soviet Union as depicted by the Gulag Archipelago? Or the overwhelming racism Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Or the horrors of working standards and hygeine in the meatpacking industry depicted in Sinclair’s The Jungle? Or presented without comment: Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?

This was evident even 500 years ago.

And no matter where ideas are suppressed the consequences ranged far beyond national boundaries and continental boundaries, then as now.

The earliest books to be burned by the Catholic Church (in 1491) were a) a legal treatise aimed at restricting the power of the Pope, and b) a work on the dignity of man, using that dignity as the basis to argue for progress in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and all fields of knowledge. Was too much power in the hands of too few a bad idea after all? You’re getting warmer. Were individuals instilled with the free agency that entitled them to the secrets of the universe? Too hot.

At its best, censorship takes on many forms that in turn give rise to many more circumventions:

During this 16th century the suppression of books became more systematic through the passing of laws. In the Catholic Church, books meant to be destroyed in their entirety were placed on Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), or the Index of Expurgated Books, where books with only partial transgressions were meant to be edited at publication, or by readers afterward. But policing the European publishing industry in this way was full of uncertainties. One group’s hit-list could be the bestseller list of another, particularly between Catholics and Protestants, as was the case with Thomas James’s, first librarian of Oxford’s Bodleian. In 1627 he published an “Index of Books Prohibited by the Pope in Use at the Bodleian Library” – it contains not only a general catalogue of anti-papist and prohibited books, but a finding aid for all banned books that can be found in the library.

On the home front, readers charged with editing or erasing individual sections of their own books responded in many different ways, if they bothered at all. Sometimes works were fully cut or blotted out, other times crossed out and fully legible, or covered with an easily detachable strip of paper that halfheartedly warned “prohibito”. Sometimes, when pages were left blank to mark the absence of excised text, readers filled in what was missing, as they had with Petrarch’s poetry. His “Babylonian Sonnets”, critical of the decadence of the Papal Courts at Avignon and Rome (entitled “Flames from Heaven”,  “Greedy Babylon”, and “Font of Sorrow”) were banned by Pope Clement VIII in 1595.  Poems were ordered to be erased in all prior editions of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, but the results vary:

A copy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Petrarch at Yale.

There have been efforts across history to preserve, at least, the names of what we have lost: I can read Sappho’s fragments as a reminder of how much we have lost of her writing, because it is recorded that Savonarola destroyed all manuscript copies of her poems in Florence, 1498. Conrad Gesner in his 1545 Bibliotheca Universalis preserved lists of books and manuscripts he knew had been destroyed in the 1527 destruction of the library at Buda in the Kingdom of Hungary when the Ottoman Turks under the lead of Suleiman the Magnificant (pictured left).

We can also produce guerilla editions to combat the books taken away, for instance Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. The first edition in 1651 was so scandalous and sought-after, that to both avoid breaking the law and supply a very demanding market, later re-prints (which had been forbidden) fake the year 1651 on their title page. The penalty for being caught, as John Redmayne found out on 28 September 1670 when his printing shop was raided, was that his stock was seized and his machinery “taken downe and demolished”. Other editions under the same  guise were successfuly printed in Holland and smuggled into London. The risk was worth the profit.

Notice I am making a distinction between guerilla editions and pirated editions: this is not about intellectual property, I’m just talking in-your-face gagging, banning, tearing, burning.

The Internet is more recently premier real estate for representing various survivors across history (i.e. and to post only a few), and the Index on Censorship works on an international basis to publicize breaches of the freedom of expression. It’s also one of the best ways of circumventing suppression while still reaching wider audiences.

But the Internet is also more recently a target for censorship. And this brings us to now, to the United States, and a bill in the House that’s close to being passed called SOPA “Stop Online Piracy Act” (and its equivalent in the Senate, PIPA or “Protect Intellectual Property Act “). And despite the name of the Campaign to Fight it, Stop American Censorship, the damage it does will extend much further. Exponentially more than publishing, which has always been an international trade, the concentrated power over information, and business, that it would make possible is far-reaching not only in geography but in time. As an article form Ars Technica reports:

The House bill is shockingly sympathetic to a narrow subsection of business interests. For instance, buried deep in the back of the >70-page document is a requirement that the US Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator prepare a study for Congress. That study should analyze “notorious foreign infringers” and attempt to quantify the “significant harm inflicted by notorious foreign infringers.” (Talk about assuming your conclusions before you start.)

The report, which is specifically charged to give weight to the views of content owners, requests a set of specific policy recommendations that might “encourage foreign businesses to adopt industry norms to promote the protection of intellectual property globally.” Should the bill pass, the US government would be explicitly charged with promoting private “industry norms”—not actual laws or treaties—around the world.

The difficulty with the language of SOPA is that it uses the language of intellectual property and even parasitism (in the E-PARASITE Act) as blanket terms for powers that also extend to suppression of non-pirated material, for instance in targeting websites like MegaUpload and RapidShare. Youtube is at stake. So is Ubu Web, a repositories of poetry. Heck, this website is probably at risk as well. Rather than effectively combating piracy, SOPA singles out some intellectual property as more important than others.

I wonder whose?

For the majority of the bill’s proponents who prefer “small government” and letting the markets self-regulate, SOPA is an about-face. Why the contradiction? My money is on money – money that lobbyists are able to allocate to members of the House and the Senate. It may not be a coincidence that Lawrence Lessig’s work on Free Culture has taken a back seat to his latest book, Republic, Lost (it may also not be a coincidence that Lessig has denounced SOPA and PIPA, but channelling his energy elsewhere these days).

Republic Lost investigates systematic corruption of Government not through outright bribery (which is illegal), but through dependence on campaign funds provided by interested groups. Not quid pro quo so much as Fundraising Party pro quo. Lessig makes several points in his really excellent (and scary) book.  First, bills which come before the House are immensely well-funded. The industries (the financial and banking at the helm) which pay lobbyists to advocate for their causes determine which issues are brought to a politician’s attention. It’s not that they force out discussion of other issues, its that those other issues won’t even make it onto the radar of the session’s agenda to being with. And once they are, the same  interests which paid their way to the front of the room continue to pay lobbyists to keep congressmen informed as the issue moves through the stages of passing. You can see the cycle we’re locked into here. Secondly, it has historically been in the interest of enterprises which benefit from deregulation to push for regulations that keep them at the top. As I have mentioned in other contexts, the internet is part of the private sector. It’s a huge moneymaker that’s still unpredictable – there is much to gain by regulating its development from the top, especially for copyright holding companies of film, music, etc. whose property has been dramatically changed by the digital age.

This struggle contributes to a modern definition of “censorship” which, for all its complexity, will only ever be articulated in the old ways. The only added complexity in this case is that the boundaries have become harder to parse between protecting intellectual property and harmful policing (in ways that are difficult to predict but are not limited to ruining businesses all the way up to ruining all of the internet!). Above the cases of censorship throughout history I offered are clear cases of institutional disapproval for ideas that often relied upon belief in protecting ideas as justifications. That’s the same, misleading nature of SOPA and PIPA. There are only so many ways to shut someone up. Book burning is one, printing house raids are even faster and cleaner, and now domain blocking and/or deleting are the latest technologies in efficient suppression.

UPDATE: Via Boing Boing, Everybody Who’s Anybody Hates SOPA: Yahoo Google et al. It’s Silicon Valley v. all of the hugely wealthy Copyright holders in Hollywood, the Music Industry, etc.


This past 22-23 November marked the launch and celebratory conference of the latest database resource for scholars and book collectors of the 15th-16th century: The USTC, or Universal Short Title Catalogue. The ‘universal’ appeal we’re talking here is very Western: “all books published in Europe between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century” as they put it on their website.

Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf

But the ‘universal’ also means access in a truer sense of the word. It is a worry that the preservation of cultural heritage is a little too confined within institutions of higher education, but this database is free and open to the public, has done well to link with digital copies of texts where possible, which really gives face to a name in a way that would appeal to anyone (an area that will only expand), and in the meantime, the opening party was widely attended: Italian, French, and German consulates were all there and yes, even the Edinburgh Renaissance Band provided the music and did it in period costume. To add to the excitement, the launch dovetails with news that the project, based at St. Andrews, has received funding to expand into the 17th century.

For anyone that couldn’t attend, but would have liked to, I’ve tried to make sense of my notes here:

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