Info-smuggling

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There’s a good story here of the development of Haystacks, a piece of software which was used to smuggle information out of Iran, by hiding it in other processes. It’s info-smuggling if you like.

I’m writing about the seventeenth-century version of info-smuggling at the moment. I’m working on a history of the Bible, and one of the recurring themes in it is censorship – book burning, suppression, book smuggling, etc. What the authorities came to realise with the advent of print, for example, is that books could not be suppressed with the same ease. It is one thing to round up  and burn hand written manuscripts, or to make their circulation harder. Once mass-produced books came along they found that ideas couldn’t be suppressed so easily. There were, in fact, too many books to burn.

In 1525, William Tyndale published his English New Testament. Since it was illegal to translate the scriptures into English without authorisation, it was printed in Germany and smuggled into England. It was a small book so copies could be hidden in bales of cloth. Soon copies started appearing on the black market for 9 pence each. On the orders of Bishop Tunstall, a merchant in Antwerp called Augustine Packington was told to do somethign about it. So what he did was simple, he brought up the entire edition of the 1526 New Testament in order to burn it. This was medieval thinking; he was still thinking of manuscripts. Tyndale was delighted: at one stroke he paid all his debts and had enough money to print a second, corrected edition. Not only that but as the flames licked at the copies being burned in St Paul’s Cross in London there were mutterings among the public over the burning of ‘God’s word.’ I can’t help feeling that neither Packington nor the Bishop of London had quite grasped the principles of either PR or the book trade.

The same lack of real understanding is evident in attempts to censor the internet. Ideas of ‘closing’ the internet or shutting down access are usually proposed by people who don’t understand it. They think it’s like a newspaper, or a telephone line. They think if you close the press or cut the line that will stop the flow of information. But the nature of the internet is that ideas – both good and bad – will find a way round. Sometimes this information is used for evil or immoral purposes; sometimes it’s for good. A knife can be used to cut bread or stab someone; an idea can inspire or lead to hate. But you can’t stop ideas. They are the most smuggled item in the world.