All lose out when books are banned

In a world of online book shopping most of us rarely consider what we’re able to buy, or what books are available from the library. But there is nothing more important in the world of freedom of expression than access to the written word.

Literature can be an escape from reality. It can provide space to dream and to challenge and the best of literature can challenge our perceptions of the status quo. Of course there are bad books as much as there are good books, but each and every published work adds something to our collective understanding of the world around us. That’s why a democracy should cherish the written word and consider libraries as cathedrals of learning and opportunity. The banning of books is for the unenlightened and should be challenged wherever it happens.

And that’s why it is so shocking that 1,648 titles are banned across the United States at the moment, according to PEN America, in their recently updated list of banned books. Many of these books relate to sexuality and LGBTQ+ experiences, and some challenge historical realities, such as segregation and class, or race and history. With these books banned, not only are authors literally being cancelled but minority communities are prevented from seeing characters like themselves in the literature that they read.

The most commonly banned book in the USA at the moment is Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe. What does this say to young people who are questioning their own identity when books which explore the very things that they are currently experiencing are banned?

As a Jewish woman and an anti-racist activist I find the concept of banning books abhorrent. Only those political leaders who are scared of people can possibly think it’s acceptable to ban the written word and make reading an illicit or illegal activity.

I was lucky as a child. I had an enlightened mum who thought there was little else more important than me reading, although I did resent getting the books about my favourite toys rather than the actual toys (yes mum I am still upset I never had a My Little Pony!). But looking at the list of Banned Books PEN America has published I’m disconcerted to see so many of those books I loved as a child banned, including several by Judy Blume and The Handmaid’s Tale by Index patron Margaret Atwood.

Freedom to read is as crucial an element of freedom of expression as freedom to create.

Censorship doesn’t protect children and young people. Reading about gender and sexuality isn’t going to make them go and have sex, or change who they might later choose to have sex with. Just as reading about Afghanistan doesn’t make a child a victim of war or reading about slavery in the USA a slave. Instead reading about those issues can make a young person more compassionate, more understanding of others and more open to new ideas. It generates empathy and gives us all a more informed and confident community who understand pain and anguish as well as our collective history. That is the society I want to live in.

And in the spirit of Barack Obama, who just released his own summer reading list in support of anti-book banning efforts, might I recommend you check out some of those wonderful titles on the list. Together let’s fight book bans.

Bunting and Effect: Reforming the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The reforms to the intelligence community that have been advocated by US President Barack Obama are not being taken well in some circles.  This is not necessarily because all members of that covert fraternity object to them.  There has been, in fact, a general understanding that something had to be done in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding dragnet surveillance.  A fundamental feature of Obama’s reform agenda centres on a greater oversight role regarding surveillance applications assessed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

Former FISC Presiding Judge John Bates has given, in a fashion, support for proposals that would allow the appointment of a public advocate or lawyers acting in an amicus curiae role.  Their role suggests, in spirit at least, a modest attempt to open an otherwise secret court process to scrutiny over surveillance applications, providing direction on privacy and specific legal points. “I think it could have some good elements if done correctly,” suggested the judge before a gathering at George Washington University Law School last Friday.

Reading between the lines, however, the judge is not glowing at the prospect of an increased work load, one affected without little benefit.  For one, he claims that an outside advocate is, for the most part, needless in standard court deliberations (pen registers, trap-and-trace orders and individualised search warrants) under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.  Furthermore, surveillance applications tended to be prosaic matters with specific individuals in mind, using such standards as probable cause that would only affect the privacy interests of an individual or set of individuals.  Amicus advocates would busy the court without any benefit, they being, for the most part, unqualified to deal with the technical matters at hand.

Where such a “friend” of the court might have some bearing would be on concerns over bulk-collection of data, though the judge was again shaving much relevance over the move.  Was this reform a genuine attempt to alter practice, or simply one designed to pacify “public perception”?  Those on the FISC are more troubled than pleased.

Many of the concerns made by Judge Bates were outlined in his January 13 letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence.  It is worth reading carefully, given the role Bates has played as chief judicial officer over FISC matters.  A vigorous, conceptual tussle between secret deliberations and transparency is undertaken, much of it fundamental over the role of the court in “oversight” matters.

If workloads were to increase, then this should be “accompanied by a commensurate increase in resources.”  Adding a number of administrative subpoena-type cases in excess of 20,000 “would fundamentally transform the nature of the FISC to the detriment of its current responsibilities.”  But even such an increase of work would not necessarily be remedied by the mere addition of personnel and resources.  It would “prove disruptive to the Courts’ ability to perform their duties, including responsibilities under FISA and the Constitution to ensure that the privacy interests of United States citizens and others are adequately protected.”

Like it or not, Judge Bates suggests that the secrecy function of the FISC should continue.  In this, the judge slips into his paternalistic voice, suggesting that publishing Court decisions for public consumption would limit rather than “enhance the public’s understanding of FISA implementation”.  Unless classified information is provided with those decisions, confusion was bound to happen.

A real bruiser comes in his detailed observations over what role the public advocate would actually play in FISA proceedings.  First and foremost, there will be no constructive adversarial role to speak of, as the advocate will be “unable to communicate with the target or conduct an independent investigation”.  Privacy protection will not be assured by involvement of the advocate in “run-of-the-mill FISA matters” and might “undermine the Courts’ ability to receive complete and accurate information on the matters before them.”

Much of the concern stems from who has the authority over appointments.   A court appointed advocate might well be more palatable for judges, but it will hardly satisfy the privacy reformists, who wish to open the FISC door to some form of public accountability.  But according to Judge Bates, a “standing advocate with independent authority to intervene at will could actually be counterproductive” while a court appointee may well maximise assistance while minimising disruption. He also fears the “constitutional” implications of the move.

Some of Bates’ concerns on the public advocate may be uncalled for. They are already considered in the Leahy/Sensenbrenner and Blumenthal bills.  Both make the point that the special advocate only appear in set cases, and never in those touching on individualised search warrants.  They would only deal with novel matters affecting subjects of surveillance targeting persons outside the United States (FISA, s. 702) and American subjects under s. 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Judge Bates’ overview suggests that some reforms to the hearing and granting of surveillance applications are not only modest but cosmetic, in so far as they hope to improve privacy protections.  The impact will be to actually hamper judicial oversight, rather than improve it.  The adversarial element that would improve representation would actually be absent, despite the presence of the public advocate, making the reform one of bluff rather than effect.   No change, however, would have been intolerable.

Speaking to a gathering of national security lawyers organised by the American Bar Association, Judge Bates had a prediction.  “My guess is nothing will happen legislatively until after the mid-term elections – if then.”  There will be congressional disagreements about matters of form and substance.  If care is not taken, enacted reforms may well be the bunting without the product.

This article was published on April 7, 2014 at


“If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent, the TPP has you in its crosshairs”


A sign saying "trading profits over people" during a rally to protest the proposed TPP trade agreement and NAFTA Agreement on January 31, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A sign saying “trading profits over people” during a rally to protest the proposed TPP trade agreement and NAFTA Agreement on January 31, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: Shutterstock)

As President Barack Obama returns from Asia trade talks today, freedom of speech campaigners plan to deliver nearly three million signatures to the White House, gathered over recent weeks on the Stop The Secrecy website.

Freedom of expression campaigners have warned that the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement, which Obama has been negotiating with a dozen Asian governments, will have wide-reaching censorship implications.

With secret negotiations reportedly at a critical stage, campaigners have mounted a global plan to draw the attention to the role that internet providers would play in preventing the free flow of information.

The draft chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on Intellectual Property— in its current leaked version mandates signatory governments to provide legal incentives for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to privately enforce copyright protection rules.

The TPP wants service providers to undertake the financial and administrative burdens of becoming copyright cops, serving what the Electronic Frontier Foundation call “a copyright maximalist agenda”.

The agreement also proposes wide-reaching alterations to the controversial topic of copyright laws, including laws that require ISPs to terminate their users’ Internet access on repeat allegations of copyright infringement, requirements to filter all internet communications for potentially copyright-infringing material, ISP obligations to block access to websites that allegedly infringe or facilitate copyright infringement, efforts to force intermediaries to disclose the identities of their customers to IP rights holders on an allegation of copyright infringement.

While this might be good news for music, film and TV companies – who have seen profits fall off the back of websites such as the Pirate Bay, but a spokesperson for Electronic Frontier Foundation warned the result could be a “cautious and conservative” internet afraid to run into draconian enforcement policies laid out under the new TPP rules.

“Private ISP enforcement of copyright poses a serious threat to free speech on the internet, because it makes offering open platforms for user-generated content economically untenable,” argue EFF.

“For example, on an ad-supported site, the costs of reviewing each post will generally exceed the pennies of revenue one might get from ads. Even obvious fair uses could become too risky to host.”

EFF also warned that ISPs take-down “ask questions later” approach to copyright infringements could give corporations too much power to remove time-sensitive user-generated content, for example a supporting video for an election campaign.

“Expression is often time-sensitive: reacting to recent news or promoting a candidate for election. Online takedown requirements open the door to abuse, allowing the claim of copyright to trump the judicial system, and get immediate removal, before the merits are assessed.”

TPP, which is currently being negotiated between the United States and a dozen major markets in Asia, It is a key plank in Obama’s much feted “pivot to Asia” and could affect up to 60% of American exports and 40% of world trade.

The US-led treaty has proposed criminal sanctions on copyright infringement and – according to EFF – could force internet service providers to monitor and censor content more aggressively, and even block entire websites wholesale if requested by rights holders.

Backed by a number of groups including Avaaz, Reddit, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Open Media International, the anti-TPP coalition is also employing guerrila marketing techniques. These include projecting campaign slogans onto key government buildings in Washington, in an attempt to draw wider attention to the secretive talks, as well as a digital banner that can be easily installed on any website.

The trade negotiations have controversially gone on largely behind closed doors – and while talks are believed to have stalled between Japan and the United States in the latest round – many countries, including Vietnam and Australia, are vociferous advocates.

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who master-minded the release of a rare leaked chapter of the agreement in November, is adamant the deal’s worst aspects lie in its approach to intellectual property.

Speaking when the documents were first published on the Wikileaks website, he observed: “If instituted, the TPP’s IP regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons”

He added “If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.”

OpenMedia’s Executive Director Steve Anderson, told Index “If the TPP’s censorship plan goes through, it will force ISPs to act as “Internet Police” monitoring our internet use, censoring content, and removing whole websites.”

OpenMedia, although based in Canada, has led the charge in co-ordinating the campaign to shed light on censorship aspects of the deal.

“A deal this extreme would never pass with the whole world watching – that’s why U.S. lobbyists and bureaucrats are using these closed-door meetings to try to ram it through. Our projection will shine a light on this secretive and extreme agreement, sending decision-makers a clear message that we expect to take part in decisions that affect our daily lives.”

This article was originally published on April 30, 2014 at

President Obama: Privacy, free expression for all

Index on Censorship is deeply concerned that neither the report nor the recommendations on the NSA prepared by the White House review panel tackles the worldwide mass surveillance carried out by the United States.  Index calls on President Obama to take urgent action to respect the right to freedom of expression and privacy of all the world’s citizens, not just those of the United States.

The report from  President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology is a 300-page tome which includes 46 recommendations – from forcing telecommunications firms to store call data for on demand NSA access, to higher level signoff on surveillance of foreign leaders.

Kirsty Hughes, CEO of Index, said:

“These weak recommendations offer no privacy for non-Americans and only scant protection for foreign leaders. The NSA’s surveillance programmes continue to violate human rights on a massive scale. When Barack Obama decides what reforms to implement in January, he should remember that Americans are not the only people who deserve the right to privacy and free speech. ”