Banned Books Week, the annual celebration of the freedom to read, will be held the week of September 24th in 2017. For this year’s celebration, the coalition of organizations that sponsors Banned Books Week will emphasize the importance of the First Amendment, which guarantees our inherent right to read.

Censorship is happening and it is infringing on the right of readers.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) – which tracks reports of book challenges and bans and compiles an annual Top Ten Challenged Books List – there was an alarming 17% increase in book censorship complaints in 2016. Since most challenges are not reported, the actual number is probably much higher. Even more disturbing, while only 10% of the titles reported to OIF are normally removed from the institutions receiving the challenges, half of the most frequently challenged books were actually banned last year.

The Banned Books Week Coalition (BBWC) is responding with “Our Right To Read,” a celebration of the diverse range of ideas found in books, and our right as citizens to make our own intellectual choices.

BBWC Chair Charles Brownstein says, “Our free society depends on the right to access, evaluate, and voice a wide range of ideas. Book bans chill that right, and increase division in the communities where they occur. This Banned Books Week, we’re asking people of all political persuasions to come together and celebrate Our Right to Read.”

The BBWC will invite communities to talk through their differences by engaging with the books some might try to ban, and in coming together to discuss why a certain book may be troubling to some, perhaps we can learn more about one another and forge common bonds within our communities.

After the Second World War and the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, a central tenet of Western democracies has been that you can put people on trial, but not ideas and opinions. Europe is now allowing dangerous pseudo-human-rights groups and Islamists to use tribunals to restrict the borders of our freedom of expression, exactly as in Soviet show trials. Militant anti-racism will be for the 21st century what communism was for the 20th century.

A year ago, Christoph Biró, a respected columnist and editor of the largest Austrian newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, wrote an article blaming “young men, testosterone-fuelled Syrians, who carry out extremely aggressive sexual attacks” (even before mass the sexual assaults of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities). The article sparked much controversy, and it received a large number of complaints and protests. Biró needed four weeks off work because of these attacks and later (under pressure) admitted that he had “lost a sense of proportion”. Prosecutors in Graz recently charged Biró with “hate speech” after a complaint by a so-called human rights organization, SOS Mitmensch. The case will be decided in court.

Journalists, novelists and intellectuals throughout Europe are now told to raise their right hand before a judge and swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth — as if that were not what they were doing all along and for what they are now being prosecuted. It is an alarming but very common sight today, where “hate speech” has become a political weapon to dispatch whoever may not agree with you.

It is not the right of a democracy to quibble about the content of articles or cartoons. In the West, we paid a high price for the freedom to read and write them. It is not up to those who govern to grant the right of thought and speech, that belongs to the free initiative in the democracies. The right to express our own opinion was paid for dearly, but if it is not exercised, it can quickly disappear.

A grotesque new legal front was just opened in Paris. The French philosopher Pascal Bruckner began his trial, where he opened his defense with a quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre: “The guns are loaded with words”. Bruckner, one of the most famous essayists of France, is on trial for having spoken out against the “collaborators of Charlie Hebdo’s assassins”.

“I will say the names: The organizations ‘The Indivisibles’ of Rokhaya Diallo and ‘The Indigenous of the Republic’, the rapper Nekfeu who wanted ‘a bonfire for those dogs’ (Charlie Hebdo), all those who have justified with ideology the death of the twelve journalists”.

Countless witnesses testified in defense of Bruckner: the editor of Charlie Hebdo, “Riss”; the political scientist Laurent Bouvet; the former president of “Neither Whores nor Submissives,” Sihem Habchi; and the philosopher, Luc Ferry. Bruckner used the term “collaborator” for “those newspapers which justified the liquidation of the Résistance and the Jews” during the Second World War. Sihem Habchi spoke of the danger of a “green fascism”, Islamism. Bruckner brought his voice before the 17th Chamber court, too often a grave-digger of freedom of expression.

These political trials about Islam started in 2002, when a court in Paris considered a complaint against Michel Houellebecq, who, in the novel Platforme called Islam the stupidest religion. The writer Fernando Arrabal, arrested for blasphemy in 1967 in Franco’s Spain, was called by Houellebecq to testify in in court. “What a joy to be in a trial for crimes of opinion,” Arrabal said in Paris. “Zaragoza, Valladolid, Santander,” the playwright named a number of Spanish cities. “This is the list of the prisons where I have been for the same crime as Houellebecq.”

The late Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, was also put on trial for her book, La Rage et l’Orgueil, The Rage and the Pride. The French newspaper Libération called her “the woman who defames Islam.” Later the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, and its editor, Philippe Val, targeted by Islamist organizations, were also forced to appear in court.

The death sentence against Salman Rushdie in 1989 by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini looked unreal. The West did not take it seriously. Since then, however, this fatwa has been assimilated to such an extent that today’s threats to free speech come from ourselves. It is now the West that puts on trial writers and journalists.

It has become almost impossible to list all the journalists and writers who have had to defend themselves in court because of their ideas on Islam. To quote the French-Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, the author of the novel “2084,” from an interview with Libération: “We are aware of the danger, but we do not know how to act for fear of being accused of being anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-Africa… Democracy, like the mouse, will be swallowed by the serpent”. And it will be turned into “a society that whispers”.

Journalists are now prosecuted even if they question Islam during a radio debate. That is why today most of writers and journalists are only whispering about the consequences of mass migration in Europe, Islam’s role in the terrorists’ war on democracies and the sultans’ offensives on freedom of expression.

The Red Brigades, the Communist terror group which devastated Italy in the 1970s, coined a slogan: “Strike one to educate one hundred.” If you target one, you get collective intimidation. This is exactly the effect of these political trials about Islam. The debate is rapidly closing.

In the Netherlands, the trial for the pseudo-crime of hate speech against Geert Wilders was concluded. The brave Dutch politician had asked supporters if they wanted fewer Moroccans in the country. Convicting Wilders, a court criminalized freedom of expression for the first time in Dutch history. Wilders was acquitted five years ago in a similar trial.

In France Ivan Rioufol, one of the most respected columnists of the newspaper, Le Figaro, had to defend himself in court against the “Collective Against Islamophobia.” The writer Renaud Camus, who has expounded on the “great replacement” theory, which holds that France is being colonized by Muslim immigrants with the help of mainstream politicians, was charged with “hate speech.” Marine Le Pen also had to appear in court. In Germany, there was the case of Jan Böhmermann, a comedian who satirized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on television. German judges then put on trial Lutz Bachmann, the founder of “Pegida,” the anti-Islamization movement. In Canada essayist and journalist Mark Steyn was charged with “flagrant Islamophobia” by a “Human Rights Tribunal” (and later cleared). Lars Hedegaard, the president of the Danish Free Press Society, was also charged with “hate speech” (and later aquitted) for comments critical of Islam.

It is fundamental that these writers and journalists are acquitted. But the goal of these trials is not to find the truth; it is to intimidate the public and to restrict freedom of expression on Islam. These are purges to “re-educate” them. Sadly, as we see from the Wilders trial, they have often been succeeding.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Milan Kundera’s novels disappeared from bookstores and libraries. The intelligentsia lay in sterility and isolation. Cinemas and theaters offered only the Soviet performances. Radio, newspapers and televisions streamed only propaganda. The Russians rewarded the bureaucrats who pressured writers and journalists, and punished the rebels. Those who spoke out were often obliged to work as unskilled laborers. Prague, restless and fascinating, became silent and whispering.

Despite being founded on ideals of freedom and openness, censorship on the internet is rampant, with more than 60 countries engaging in some form of state-sponsored censorship. A research project at the University of Cambridge is aiming to uncover the scale of this censorship, and to understand how it affects users and publishers of information.

For all the controversy it caused, Fitna is a great film. The 17-minute short, by the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, was a way for him to express his opinion that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Understandably, Islam did not see things the same way. In advance of its release in 2008, the film received widespread condemnation, especially within the Muslim community.

When a trailer for Fitna was released on YouTube, authorities in Pakistan demanded that it be removed from the site. YouTube offered to block the video in Pakistan, but would not agree to remove it entirely. When YouTube relayed this decision back to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the decision was made to block YouTube.

Although Pakistan has been intermittently blocking content since 2006, a more persistent blocking policy was implemented in 2011, when porn content was censored in response to a media report that highlighted Pakistan as the top country in terms of searches for porn. Then, in 2012, YouTube was blocked for three years when a video, deemed blasphemous, appeared on the website. Only in January this year was the ban lifted, when Google, which owns YouTube, launched a Pakistan-specific version, and introduced a process by which governments can request the blocking of access to offending material.

All of this raises the thorny issue of censorship. Those censoring might raise objections to material on the basis of offensiveness or incitement to violence (more than a dozen people died in Pakistan following widespread protests over the video uploaded to YouTube in 2012). But when users aren’t able to access a particular site, they often don’t know whether it’s because the site is down, or if some force is preventing them from accessing it. How can users know what is being censored and why?

The goal of a censor is to disrupt the flow of information. Internet censorship threatens free and open access to information. There’s no code of conduct when it comes to censorship. Those doing the censoring, usually governments, aren’t in the habit of revealing what they’re blocking access to.

We haven’t got a clear understanding of the consequences of censorship: how it affects different stakeholders, the steps those stakeholders take in response to censorship, how effective an act of censorship is, and what kind of collateral damage it causes.

Because censorship operates in an inherently adversarial environment, gathering relevant datasets is difficult. Much of the key information, such as what was censored and how, is missing.

The primary reasons for government-mandated censorship are political, religious or cultural. A censor might take a range of steps to stop the publication of information, to prevent access to that information by disrupting the link between the user and the publisher, or to directly prevent users from accessing that information. But the key point is to stop that information from being disseminated.

Internet censorship takes two main forms: user-side and publisher-side. In user-side censorship, the censor disrupts the link between the user and the publisher. The interruption can be made at various points in the process between a user typing an address into their browser and being served a site on their screen. Users may see a variety of different error messages, depending on what the censor wants them to know. 

The thing is, even in countries like Saudi Arabia, where the government tells people that certain content is censored, how can we be sure of everything they’re stopping their citizens from being able to access?. When a government has the power to block access to large parts of the internet, how can we be sure that they’re not blocking more than they’re letting on?

In the case of the blocking of YouTube in 2012 in Pakistan, a lot of the demand went to rival video sites like Daily Motion. But in the case of pornographic material, which is also heavily censored in Pakistan, the government censors didn’t have a comprehensive list of sites that were blacklisted, so plenty of pornographic content slipped through the censors’ nets. 

Despite any government’s best efforts, there will always be individuals and publishers who can get around censors, and access or publish blocked content through the use of censorship resistance systems. A desirable property, of any censorship resistance system is to ensure that users are not traceable, but usually users have to combine them with anonymity services such as Tor.

It’s like an arms race, because the technology which is used to retrieve and disseminate information is constantly evolving. We now have social media sites which have loads of user-generated content, so it’s very difficult for a censor to retain control of this information because there’s so much of it. And because this content is hosted by sites like Google or Twitter that integrate a plethora of services, wholesale blocking of these websites is not an option most censors might be willing to consider.

In addition to traditional censorship, a new kind of censorship – publisher-side censorship – where websites refuse to offer services to a certain class of users. Specifically, the differential treatments of Tor users by some parts of the web. The issue with services like Tor is that visitors to a website are anonymized, so the owner of the website doesn’t know where their visitors are coming from. There is increasing use of publisher-side censorship from site owners who want to block users of Tor or other anonymizing systems.

Censorship is not a new thing. Those in power have used censorship to suppress speech or writings deemed objectionable for as long as human discourse has existed. However, censorship over the internet can potentially achieve unprecedented scale, while possibly remaining discrete so that users are not even aware that they are being subjected to censored information.

It’s often said that, online, we live in an echo chamber, where we hear only things we agree with. This is a side of the filter bubble that has its flaws, but is our own choosing. The darker side is when someone else gets to determine what we see, despite our interests. This is why internet censorship is so concerning. The cat and mouse game between the censors and their opponents will always exist.

The Banned Books Week Coalition is an alliance of organizations joined by a commitment to increase awareness of the annual celebration of the freedom to read. The Coalition seeks to engage various communities and inspire participation in Banned Books Week through education, advocacy, and the creation of programming about the problem of book censorship.

Sponsors include: American Booksellers Association; American Library Association; American Society of Journalists and Authors; Association of American Publishers; American Association of University Presses; Authors Guild; Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Dramatists Legal Defense Fund; Freedom to Read Foundation; Index on Censorship; National Coalition Against Censorship; National Council of Teachers of English; PEN America; People for the American Way Foundation; and Project Censored. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

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