You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom
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From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the advert of the Web, everywhere you turn you are told that we live in age of unparalleled freedom. This is dangerously naïve. From the revolution in Iran that wasn’t to the imposition of super-injunctions from the filthy rich, we still live in a world where you can write a book and end up dead.After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, and the advent of the Web which allowed for even the smallest voice to be heard, everywhere you turned you were told that we were living in an age of unparalleled freedom.You Can't Read This Book argues that this view is dangerously naive. From the revolution in Iran that wasn't, to the Great Firewall of China and the imposition of super-injunctions from the filthy rich protecting their privacy, the traditional opponents of freedom of speech - religious fanaticism, plutocratic power and dictatorial states - are thriving, and in many respects finding the world a more comfortable place in the early 21st century than they did in the late 20th.This is not an account of interesting but trivial disputes about freedom of speech: the rights and wrongs of shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre, of playing heavy metal at 3 am in a built-up area or articulating extremist ideas in a school or university. Rather, this is a story that starts with the cataclysmic reaction of the Left and Right to the publication and denunciation of the Satanic Verses in 1988 that saw them jump into bed with radical extremists. And it ends at the juncture where even in the transgressive, liberated West, where so much blood had been spilt for Freedom, where rebellion is the conformist style and playing the dissenter the smart career move in the arts and media, you can write a book and end up destroyed or dead.


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You Can’t Read This Book

Censorship in an Age of Freedom


Fourth Estate

An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd.

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF

First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Fourth Estate

This revised edition published by Fourth Estate 2013

Copyright © Nick Cohen 2012, 2013

The right of Nick Cohen to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins ebooks

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Source ISBN: 978000751850

Ebook Edition © MARCH 2013 ISBN: 9780007436453

Version: 2017-03-27

For Christopher Hitchens


There is an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind: between every kind of commissar and inquisitor and bureaucrat and those who know that, whatever the role of social and political forces, ideas and books have to be formulated and written by individuals.



Do you believe in freedom of speech?

Really, are you sure?

You may say you do. It’s the sort of thing that everyone says. Just as everyone says they have a sense of humour, especially when they don’t. You will certainly have had serious men and women assure you that freedom of speech is inevitable whether you believe in it or not. In the late twentieth century states, courts, private companies and public bureaucracies confined information, their argument runs. If it spread beyond those with ‘a need to know’, the authorities of the nation state, whether a dictatorship or a democracy, could imprison or fine the leaker. The threat of punishment was enough to deter newspapers from publishing or television stations from broadcasting.

That manageable world has gone for good. If one person living in a court’s jurisdiction breaks an injunction, a judge can punish him. But how can a judge punish a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand on Twitter or Facebook? If a court in New Delhi, Copenhagen or London bans the publication of embarrassing information, sites outside the jurisdiction of the Indian, Danish or British courts can publish it on the Web, and everyone with access to a computer in India, Denmark or Britain can read it, along with billions of others.

If the Web has a soul, then a loathing for censorship stirs it. The Streisand effect – first named in 2005 after the star tried to sue a photographer for publishing pictures of her Malibu mansion, and succeeded only in directing hundreds of thousands of viewers to his website – is a real phenomenon. Label a report ‘confidential’ and it becomes as desirable as forbidden fruit. Once a whistleblower leaks it, you can guarantee that the Web will broadcast its contents, regardless of whether they are interesting or not.

Optimists about the liberating potential of technology can find many reasons to be euphoric. The Net has no borders. National laws cannot contain it. Attempts to press down on the free circulation of information in one country just push it into other countries. The ability of users to copy, link and draw others into their campaigns had stripped censors of their power.

On this cheerful reading, we live in a new world where information is liquid. Wall it in, and it will seep through the brickwork. ‘An old way of doing things is dying; a new one is being born,’ announced a US cyber activist. ‘The Age of Transparency is here.’

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