Why The Online Books Page is black for January 18

As I mentioned in my last post, the US Congress is currently considering two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA),that would make it easy for copyright infringement complaints (whether ultimately justified or not) to wipe entire sites off the Net by various means, with little recourse or due process for site owners.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, these bills, if enacted, threaten censorship of a wide variety of sites that host controversial content or unfiltered public discourse, not just flagrant bootleg sites.   Sites hosting online books, in particular, could be cut off in various ways if they host a book that someone says infringes copyright in some way. (Even the threat of wholesale cutoff could cause them to take the book down, without any sort of judicial hearing.)  Even linking to a site that has content that’s the subject of a complaint could put a site at risk.

Many sites are “going dark” in various ways on the 18th, to raise awareness of these bills and show what it could be like if they became targets of SOPA or PIPA-enabled censorship.  This includes a number of the sites linked to from The Online Books Page.  For example, the Internet Archive, which hosts 2 million volumes, is out of service for 12 hours on the 18th.

The Online Books Page will not go offline, but we will turn many of our pages black for the 18th, as a warning both that some of the links on the site may be out of service, and that the site itself, which links to more than 1.4 million books on thousands of sites around the world, could be at risk if the bills currently under consideration in Congress pass.

My objection to the bills is not an objection to opposing copyright violations.  As the US Constitution recognizes, appropriately bounded copyrights serve a useful purpose in “promoting the progress of science and arts“, and a fair bit of the time I spend on The Online Books Page is devoted towards making sure the online books I curate do in fact comply with applicable copyright law.   Without clear and reasonable boundaries, though, copyright and its enforcement can inhibit rather than promote the progress of knowledge and the arts, by becoming tools of censorship and chilled speech.  I believe the current bills in Congress unfortunately do that.  If you are concerned about them as well, I encourage you to contact members of Congress to make your concerns known.

Why Banned Books Week matters

It’s Banned Books Week again, and Amnesty International, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the American Library Association are among the groups noting the occasion. I’ve also updated the links on my ongoing exhibit Banned Books Online in preparation for this week, a time when the exhibit gets an especially large volume of visits.

Banned Books Week is really about two different, but related, things. The first of these, the focus of sites like Amnesty’s and the “Books Suppressed or Censored by Legal Authorities” section of my exhibit, deals with attempts to restrict who is allowed to speak about what matters to them. And in a lot of the world, the right to speak out is severely and violently repressed. The other day I added to my online books collection a number of titles from Human Rights Watch, which has many books, press releases, and other publications about grave threats to freedom of the press and freedom to protest in places like Burma, Chile, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela, various Middle Eastern and African countries, former Soviet republics, and many other places around the world.

Americans enjoy a country with a much freer press than the countries above (and indeed, a freer press than we had in my grandparents’ day). We’re not perfect; our legal system does sometimes suppress legitimate expression, for a time at least, in the name of security, copyright, or “the children”. (And sometimes the threat of criminal violence can suppress books when the law does not.) It is worth remembering the important books that can be published thanks to the free press, and not to take them for granted.

But the banned books lists you’ll find in many libraries and bookstores (or in dubious chain emails) doesn’t focus much on the political samizdat, security exposés, or portrayals of Mohammed that are the objects of forcible suppression today. Instead, they’re often full of classics and popular titles sold widely in bookstores and online– or dominated by books written for young readers, or assigned for school reading. Some of the titles in these lists have been the targets of publication suppression at some point, but many (like those in the Harry Potter series) have not.

So is it wrong to call these books banned? Are lists like these just “shameless propaganda”, as some conservatives charge, or a hapless attempt to market classic literature to teens, as satirized in an Onion piece?

Not if you take readers seriously. An unread book, after all, has as little impact as an unpublished book. The bans that dominate the ALA lists are the obverse of publication bans: they’re attempts to restrict who is allowed to hear about what matters to them. True, their reach may be smaller than the government bans that can keep a book out of an entire state or country. And it may often be easier to circumvent these kinds of bans. (Particularly if you have a driver’s license, a credit card, and easy Internet access, things that adults often take for granted but that many kids lack.) But censorship at the reader’s end can be just as injurious as censorship at the writer’s end.

Librarians and teachers necessarily select certain books, and not others, for their collections and classes, and decide where they will best work. And it’s right for patrons of the schools and libraries to have some say in these selections (even if the professionals should generally be allowed to do their jobs). So simply counting “challenges” to a book isn’t very informative. But there’s a world of difference between saying “isn’t this more appropriate for the YA shelves than for the early readers section?” or “Would this title be a better fourth-grade book on this topic than the one currently being used?”, and insisting “None of our kids should be reading about this kind of thing!” when “this kind of thing” is already on the minds of those kids, or something that they should be thinking about. The “Unfit for Schools and Minors?” section of my Banned Books online exhibit describes some of the more dubious attempts to keep books out of the hands of young readers.

My oldest child is only 8, but he’s already coming up with new and challenging questions on an almost-daily basis. By the time kids reach double-digit ages (which is the young end of the audience for most of the controversial books) they have lots of questions about life, death, sexuality, unfairness, hatred, violence, drugs, and religion. They deserve the chance to explore answers to these questions in their reading and in their conversations.

In the process, they may encounter some ideas they’re not ready to deal with fully. (But encounters with text are often naturally self-regulated. When I was a young precocious reader, I’d usually skim over difficult parts or lose interest in a book that had them. More than once I’ve been surprised going back to a book as an adult and seeing what I’d missed as a kid.) Kids will also certainly encounter lots of dubious ideas and counsels. But mainstream culture is full of these as well, and I hope that I and other parents will teach our kids how to evaluate those wisely, whether or not they come from sources we usually think of as “controversial”.

Banned Books Week is thus about twin freedoms: the freedom to write about what matters to you, and the freedom to read about what matters to you. In this week’s observance, I hope we grow to better appreciate these freedoms and the power of books and ideas.