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John Ralston Saul. (Simon Hayter For The Globe and Mail)
John Ralston Saul. (Simon Hayter For The Globe and Mail)

Censorship in the digital age: ‘Words are more powerful than ever’ Add to ...

As part of its Keep Toronto Reading festival, featuring Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451, the Toronto Reference Library invited John Ralston Saul, president of PEN International, and Charles Foran, president of PEN Canada, to go to the library on Thursday to talk about censorship in the digital age. Here, they give an idea of the issues they will discuss:

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Charles Foran: In Fahrenheit 451, a woman self-immolates with her forbidden home library rather than watch the books be burned. The novel suggests that books are where ideas, history, even human consciousness get stored. Is their status different in the digital age?

John Ralston Saul: You look around the world in 2013 and you say: How many prime ministers or presidents are in prison? One or two. How many generals or bankers? Two or three. But how many writers? 850 or so. Plus, the new fashion is, “Don’t torture or imprison the writers, just kill them.” PEN tracks dozens killed every year. Books, words, are more powerful than ever, and more frightening to those in power.

Foran: And yet the perception is that other forms of expression, in particular those associated with digital technologies, now dominate. Are you sure books are still worth dying for?

Saul: We shouldn’t obsess about the book in its traditional form. People are always saying it’s the end of the Gutenberg era. More to the point, it’s a return to an oral era. The Gutenberg galaxy was about the written word. At its best, the digital era is part of the rediscovery of the oral. At its worst, it’s a Kafkaesque victory of the bureaucratic over the imagination.

Foran: A blogger or tweeter is at greater risk than a novelist or poet.

Saul: Certain governments are suggesting that bloggers and tweeters aren’t “real” writers, and so don’t merit protection. A writer is anyone from a Nobel laureate to a debut blogger. They all get PEN’s attention.

Foran: I wonder about the attention span of digital culture itself, whether it is even built to house those ideas, preserve that history, contain that consciousness. It’s too scattered and unfocused.

Saul: The danger is that the “sophisticated” managers of power can employ these uncertain new mechanisms to shut down freedom of expression. What we’re witnessing is a war between those who want to use the Internet for freedom and those who want to use it for financial gain, and/or to control.

Foran: Ron Deibert, head of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, talks about the “exploding new cyber-industrial complex.” Corporations, including Canadian ones, are selling governments cyberspace software that allows them to hack, spy and survey their citizens, sometimes by methods that are illegal within national jurisdictions. There’s big money in aiding and abetting oppression on the Net.

Saul: I look at all this through the lens of what I’ve written over the last couple of decades, namely the rise of the religion of methodology, which replaces ethics with professionalism. Hiding behind quarterly profits and the cult of efficiency, corporations and governments are acting immorally. Endless charters were put in place in the last hundred years to protect various freedoms. Governments and corporations are using the Net as an excuse to bypass these covenants.

Foran: Could one of the essential humanistic projects of the 20th century – the attempt to codify and enshrine universally agreed individual and group rights – be at risk of falling victim to technology acceleration in the 21st? Or is that too dystopian?

Saul: All these things are decisions. If a government really wants these corporations to fall within their jurisdictions, they can make it happen. The laws of any given country can apply.

Foran: As far as most Netizens are concerned, the Net is meant to be safely beyond the reaches of corporations and governments. It’s a commons, open and free.

Saul: But we all know now that it isn’t. We all know that pretty much everything we write online isn’t private or protected, no matter the precautions we take. When you think that China employs between 20,000 and 50,000 Internet police to control their Internet …

Foran: How about China using those same employees to hack into Western companies and pass their trade secrets along to Chinese corporations?

Saul: They used to have to steal them from Western factories actually operating inside China. Now, they just hack into mainframes. It’s more efficient.

Foran: Last fall, PEN International introduced a Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technologies. Part of the intention is to offer principles for defending writers arrested or silenced for expressing themselves digitally. But I wonder if this isn’t just one more charter to be ignored by dictators.

Saul: No. This digital declaration is an essential step. We shouldn’t only criticize the Chinese government’s surveillance of the Net. The same is going on in lots of free countries, including our own. What we’ve seen since Sept. 11, 2001, is a change around the world, where economics has been replaced by security as the primary driver. The result has been the repeal of citizens’ rights for the alleged sake of security. The new surveillance culture is everywhere. We need clear mechanisms with which to fight back. We need language. The declaration is an important tool.

Foran: And those charters and doctrines, so carefully, painfully evolved over time, are a quick act of Congress, or Parliament, to abolish.

Saul: If the Net is going to be the principal place for communication from here onward, we have to make sure it operates in a context of fairness and law. People who believe in freedom of expression have spent several centuries fighting against censorship, in whatever form. We have to be certain the Net doesn’t become the site for technological book burning.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

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