Kindling for the Fire: Banned Books

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo offers food for thought in Why 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, discussing “how Amazon’s remote deletion of e-books from the Kindle paves the way for book-banning’s digital future.”

One observation worth pondering:

“The difference between today’s Kindle deletions and yesteryear’s banning is that the earlier prohibitions weren’t perfectly enforceable. At best, publishers that found their books banned by courts could try to recall all books in circulation. In 2007, Cambridge University Press settled a lawsuit with Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi Arabian banker who sued for libel over a book that alleged he’d funded terrorism. Cambridge agreed to ask libraries across the world to remove books from their shelves. But the libraries were free to refuse. If bin Mahfouz had sued over a Kindle book, on the other hand, he could ask the court not only to stop sales but also to delete all copies that had already been sold. As Zittrain points out, courts might consider such a request a logical way to enforce a ban —if they can order Dish Network to disable your DVR, they can also tell Amazon or Apple to disable a certain book, movie, or song.

“But that sets up a terrible precedent. Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future — when all books exist as files on servers — courts would have the power to make works vanish completely. Zittrain writes: ‘Imagine a world in which all copies of once-censored books like Candide, The Call of the Wild, and Ulysses had been permanently destroyed at the time of the censoring and could not be studied or enjoyed after subsequent decision-makers lifted the ban.’ This may sound like an exaggeration; after all, we’ll surely always have file-sharing networks and other online repositories for works that have been decreed illegal. But it seems like small comfort to rely on BitTorrent to save banned art. The anonymous underground movements that have long sustained banned works will be a lot harder to keep up in the world of the Kindle and the iPhone.”

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Published in: on July 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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