Something very disturbing has happened at Cambridge. The Reporter - the University's official record - published on Wednesday 14th December a notice that the recent IP Grace had been passed with amendments. This notice appeared in the online version of the Reporter on Wednesday morning: here is a copy that I retrieved from the web cache.
The notice said in effect that we had won the ballot on IP policy. However, a press release issued by the University at 9.30 on Tuesday had said that the Council had won the ballot instead. Here, for example, is the resulting coverage in the Guardian on Wednesday.
So who actually won the ballot? Here's where it gets nasty. The University's reaction was to pull the web page, and scramble to retrieve as many copies of the Reporter as it could. The result was that academics in central Cambridge departments got a Reporter that said we'd won the ballot, while those of us in out-of-town departments have not received a paper copy at all. (Our administrators were phoned by central administrators asking them not to distribute any copies if they arrived; in the end none of them arrived.) We do now have access to a new online version of the Reporter which now records that the Council won.
This is not how any publication should be run, let alone the publication of record of a major University. George Orwell wrote in "1984" of a Ministry of Truth whose officials constantly rewrote history to suit the current party line, and a number of governments in the last century really did behave like that. Their control was less than perfect, because of the nature of paper publication. But the Internet changes this. Archives are online; they can be found using search engines; and material to which powerful people object can be removed by the use (or abuse) of legal process.
In the UK, a UK court judgment ordered the Guardian to change its online archives to remove a statement it found defamatory. In a notorious earlier case, the penet remailer in Finland was closed down following legal harrassment by the Scientologists: the statements to which they objected were subsequently published in the Netherlands after a court battle there. I have also myself been the subject of a gagging order related to my research. Concerns about censorship led me to write the Eternity Service paper, which helped inspire later peer-to-peer systems such as freenet and gnutella. In short, online censorship is a live technology policy issue.
So I believe that the University of Cambridge has set a shockingly bad example by casually deciding that something they have officially published can be "unpublished". It is particularly inappropriate given the history of Cambridge University Press, which publishes the Reporter. In the fourteenth century, when the Bible was first translated into English by John Wycliff, the authorities collected and burned the copies, thus containing the threat. In the sixteenth, the founder of our press - William Tyndale - managed to print tens of thousands of copies of his New Testament translation before they caught him and burned him. The scale of the distribution that mechanical printing made possible ensured that censorship was no longer a practical option. Tyndale not only gave the University an asset worth millions; he also played a key role in establishing freedom of speech. It would be tragic if Wednesday's action by his successors at the Press were to undermine that freedom.
Colleagues and I plan to call for a Discussion in the Regent House to ensure that our rules are changed so that this can never happen again.
For more on the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, and more links, see our campaign web page on the IP issue, and our old web page.