Online Technology Challenges Censors – Part II

More goes online in a day than one person could read in a lifetime, and that includes some of the million books released each year by publishers around the globe. This YaleGlobal series explores the challenges for authoritarian regimes in monitoring the internet’s new levels of information overload. In the second article of the series, author Bruce Judson describes how digital technology complicates the task for censors, with ebook readers that can store more than 1000 books. Their popularity is skyrocketing. As Google is poised to launch a bookstore, various firms that make ereaders and release titles have unbundled hardware-software restrictions, offering applications that allow formatted ebooks to be read from almost any connected device. The ereaders will likely adopt a rental format, transforming library and publishing operations, while reducing book prices. Translation capability rapidly improves, breaking down borders for any book. Repressed peoples will have new ways to access the forbidden literature that inspires. – YaleGlobal

Online Technology Challenges Censors – Part II

Popular Kindle and other ebook readers can store forbidden books and foil censors
Bruce Judson
Monday, October 25, 2010

Handle with care: Chinese visitors examine e-book readers at the Book Fair in Frankfurt

NEW HAVEN: Emerging as a popular option for readers, ebooks are the latest marriage of technology and media and pose new challenges for authoritarian regimes and censorship.

Historically, forbidden books have played a central role in inspiring and informing repressed peoples. Over the next two years, a worldwide explosion of ebooks and ebook readers could trigger a flow of anti-regime information. Devices that store more than 1000 books, combined with improved translation capability, could overwhelm the ability of local authorities in preventing the flow of forbidden knowledge.

The largely unrecognized revolution results from three related phenomenon: First, ebook readers are no longer limited to dedicated devices. Soon, almost any internet-connected device, ranging from tablets such as Apple's Ipad to smart phones powered by Google's Android operating system – will function as ebook readers. Second, the availability of ebooks from thousands of online sites in all languages is poised to surge, combined with constantly improving translation technologies. Finally, ebooks are distinctly different from current internet content, and will occupy a new place in the proliferating access of people around the world to knowledge and inspirational fiction.

To date, rapid innovation in ebooks has been largely confined to the US, but with Amazon's Kindle now shipping in at least 100 countries and international versions of other readers, ebooks will soon be a global phenomenon.

The ebook industry has already moved through the first phase of sustained innovation. Initially, ebook formats were tied to a specific device in the same way that Macintosh software only works with Macintosh computers: Amazon created the Kindle, and sold Kindle-formatted ebooks; Barnes & Nobles developed the Nook, and sold Nook-formatted ebooks.

Now, this tight connection, between hardware and content, the equivalent of proprietary software, has unbundled. New developments in hardware, including tablets, like Apple’s iPad, and smart phones, like the Google Android or the Apple iPhone, have proven wildly popular. At the same time, makers of dedicated reading devices realize that ebooks are more likely to flourish if widely available throughout the emerging mobile web, unbundled from dedicated hardware devices. As a result, developers of ebook devices have released free apps allowing ebooks formatted for their specific platform to run on other connected devices. An owner of an Android phone can now download free apps that allow the phone to display books formatted for Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and plethora of others.

The significance of unbundling cannot be over-stated. Today, almost any new type of web-connected device – ranging from a smart phone to a PC – is also an ereader. As a consequence, the number of worldwide ebook devices is a function of how fast smart phones and other connected devices proliferate, in addition to the sales of ebook-dedicated devices. The globe will soon be awash in connected devices that function as ereaders.

Yet as consumer products, ebooks are in their infancy. Five likely developments are relevant:

First, owners of ebooks, including libraries, have the ability to lend or give books to others. Barnes & Noble Nook already allows Nook owners to lend ebooks to other Nook owners. The Sony Reader and other ereaders allow public libraries in a growing list of countries to buy and lend ebooks for a specific borrowing period. To make such rentals, owners of Sony Readers visit library sites online. Inevitably, the competitive market will lead to broader transferability.

Second, ebooks, like movies, will become available through a lower-cost rental model. Today, for example, through Amazon, Apple iTunes or other internet sites, US consumers can download a recently released movie at one of two prices: The consumer pays one price, often above $15, to download and own the movie, or a lower price, generally $3.99, to download and access the movie for 24 hours. In this second rental example, the download software automatically cuts off access at the end of the 24-hour period. Again, a competitive market will push publishers and ebook stores to offer rentals for up to three weeks at prices substantially below current purchase prices.

Third, Google has announced the coming launch of Google Editions, an ebook store. This initiative, separate from the Google Books scanning project, will offer several hundred thousand books directly to consumers via arrangements in place with thousands of publishers and could quickly become the world's largest ebook store. Google's entry into this market will serve as an accelerating force in the already active ebook universe.

Fourth, translation technologies have improved substantially and are more accessible. One author, fluent in several languages, told me that, in general, machine-generated translations of his work are "acceptable," good enough to "get the point across." The quality of these services will continue to improve with time.

The ebook reading experience will continue to improve as it gains increasing consumer adoption. Regardless of how the market evolves or books are distributed, publishing and books will know no borders. Online stores, libraries, owners who transfer "used books" to friends, translation technologies, and a variety of relevant services, yet unknown, will inevitably arise.

As ebooks become ubiquitous throughout the free world, the effort required to block access to specific texts will become increasingly difficult. It’s still possible to block access to specific blog sites. However, in the evolving ebook firmament, with thousands of possible outlets, it’s far more challenging, if not impossible, to limit access to books critical of specific regimes.

For authoritarian regimes, the ebook universe is more far-reaching than today’s internet for two reasons: 

First, most censorship today focuses on specific websites such as individual blogs, social networks or news sites. In contrast, offending ebooks will be accessible from a larger, potentially ever-changing range of sites. They will potentially number in the tens of thousands, in multiple languages, across the globe, making it far harder for censors to find and block offending sites.

Second, books serve a more long-term purpose than newspaper, magazine or blog articles. Whether fiction or nonfiction, ebooks with well-reasoned content will influence opinion and inspire. Throughout history, regimes have banned specific books and pamphlets precisely because of the extraordinary impact they have on a repressed populace.

Today, China bans the works of Gao Xingjian, the Chinese-born Noble Laureate in Literature. Yet his books are available in multiple ebook formats. As ebooks proliferate throughout the globe, China and other nations will find efforts to ban books increasingly ineffective.

From the radio to the internet, each new technology advance creates another nail in the coffin of regimes that seek to wall off their citizens. No single technology alone will fling open the borders that prohibit the flow of information. Nonetheless, each new advance weakens boundaries, and ebooks will play a significant role in this process.


Bruce Judson is the bestselling author of numerous books on the internet’s impact on business and society; and is a frequent consultant to global media companies on addressing the challenges of disruptive technologies. He is presently entrepreneur-in-residence at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, he was a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
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