Censorship Gets Smart

Technology offers would-be censors a broader reach

October 26, 2009


As we all know, Judith Krug—the director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, who passed away April 11, was an extraordinary woman, a force for the freedom to read and view and write and think as we please. She was a hero and role model for us all to live up to, and she left a legacy for ALA and for generations to come.

Judy was also, as anyone who ever met her will testify, a pistol. I never saw her not looking as though she’d just stepped out of a bandbox, even when our paths crossed a few years ago at the Alaska Library Association conference, waaaay up in Barrow, on the north slope, where I got to stand on the Arctic Ocean (a block or two from the Wells Fargo) and we all had a warm and splendid time. Somehow, Judy could make even an ultrathick parka look ultrachic. She will be missed.

The September issue of GQ ran a piece speculating that bombings in Chechnya several years ago, which precipitated a crackdown by then–Russian President Vladimir Putin, were actually engineered by the Russian government.

Fascinating and potent stuff, but you can’t read about it in the Russian edition of GQ. Or in any of Conde Nast’s other Russian magazines. Or even on the GQ website. “We’re mindful of the laws and issues in the countries we publish in,” said Conde Nast’s spokeswoman, predictably, in the September 5 New York Times. It’s almost as though they were wishing the article away.

In the networked world, this sort of discussion often centers on filtering software, the sort of stuff that the Children’s Internet Protection Act forced down our throats. We’ve grudgingly come to terms with that, as well as broader-scale attempts such as the poetically named Green Dam software that China was going to require on all new computers this summer. Ostensibly mandated to block pornography, the program was quickly discovered to also block political sites (using blacklists taken from Cybersitter), as well as to make computers more vulnerable to attack.


Green Dam got the ax, but who doesn’t believe the Chinese government won’t try again? State-sponsored pervasive censorship is also practiced by a number of countries, including such usual suspects as North Korea and Cuba but also Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Egypt. Not to mention Iran, where, for a time at least, Twitter and other social networking sites bravely told post-election stories in ways that no other media could or would.

Creation is a basic human urge; so is censorship. “Don’t think that” has been around since the beginning, and will always be with us. We’re used to the clumsy, ham-fisted stuff: people foaming at the mouth about And Tango Makes Three, taking a book out and not returning it (that’ll show us), crummy filtering software that blocks more than it purports to, and so on.

The urge to purge

It seems likely that the future of censorship is going to be a lot smarter and more insidious. The best, most successful kind of censorship, of course, is the kind you’re not even aware of. Trying to get a book removed from a library shelf or school reading list is one thing; creating barriers so it’s harder to access or even know about websites or other resources is another.

We always used to be comforted by John Gilmore’s pithy observation that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” I’m not as convinced as I used to be, though there is hope (the Gawker website posted Russian translations of the GQ article). I can only hope that another Judy Krug arises from our number to take up the cause in this brave new world . . . but that’s another story.