Socrates & Apple Inc.: Censorship in publishing


Warning: politics ahead!

Censorship by a governing body has always been a tense subject. On hearing the word ‘censorship’ people generally assume that this is a historical thing, or something that happens in dictatorships abroad. Censorship doesn’t really happen in modern democracies, right?


In the early 4th Century BCE Socrates was put to death by the Athenian government for heretical teachings that he refused to withdraw (detailed in Plato’s Phaedo). This is one of the earliest acts of censorship on record, and sets the tone for much of what followed.

Until the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1440s, relatively few texts were published in Britain and the Church had almost complete control of them. Movable type was a considerable threat to the Church’s authority – suddenly it was possible to produce large numbers of books on immoral or heretical subjects that far more people could afford. The Church fought back, with notable cases such as Francois Rabelais and Galileo, both of whom were placed under house-arrest and their books banned. In 1543 it was decreed that no book could be published without the Church’s approval. Any books that went against the Catholic creed were banned – added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) in 1559 – and a number of Protestant printers went to the stake.

It was not only religious monopoly that drove censorship. In 1557 the Stationers’ Company was granted a royal charter to control printing in England. Only members of the Company were legally permitted to print, and censorship became a matter of corporate monopoly and anti-competitiveness. The Company was given powers by the Crown to seize and destroy dangerous and seditious material. This lasted (on and off) until 1694, when the Company charter was not renewed. But censorship on the basis of corporate interest hasn’t gone away. In an example so ridiculous it’s almost funny, Laytonville, CA banned The Lorax in 1989 because it ‘criminalized the foresting and logging industry’.

In the modern age, censorship is less explicit but very much present, for the most part on the basis of security or immoral/obscene content (although who defines that is an interesting point).

‘98.6% of UK internet traffic consume a service called the child abuse image content list which uses data provided by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify pages judged to contain indecent photographs of children. When such a page is found, the system creates a ‘URL not found page’ error rather than deliver the actual page or a warning page.’

Since 2013, any internet sites containing pornographic, violent, suicidal or addictive content are automatically blocked from every UK household (unless specifically requested). Also in 2013, the book Pandaleaks: The Dark Side of the WWF – a book accusing the WWF of eco-tourism and eco-vandalism – was banned from Britain for a year when the WWF threatened lawsuits.

Which, finally, brings me onto the US All Writs Act of 1789. The FBI are proposing to use this Act to enforce IT companies to put a backdoor into their operating systems, so the FBI can access any device to look for dangerous content. You might have seen Apple’s open letter about this recently. That’s not censorship on a book basis – that’s censorship on an individual basis. And if you think it only affects Americans, think again. Anyone with an iPhone will be affected, regardless of where you live, because Apple is an American company. More than that, though, any device company operating in America is being subjected to the same pressure, and their devices worldwide would also be affected.

So, all of them, then.


Censorship is no longer an explicit legal matter in Britain. There are no trade bodies or authorised personnel (such as the position of Master of the Revels, or Examiner of the Stage, a government appointed official that lasted from 1600 – 1968). Freedom of the press, and the explosion of self-publishing, make it almost impossible to restrict content. Nonetheless, it still happens. We just don’t see it.

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