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Hamlet is but the latest to fall victim to library censorship

You think I’m violent? Have you met Macbeth? lisby

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet upon welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the “prison” that is Denmark. But if you’re reading this from the British Library, you might have to just take my word for it.

In a classic case of internet filtering in all its glory, a wifi user at the library attempted to check a quote from Hamlet this week, only to find that access to the play had been blocked, apparently because of its violent content. There can be no clearer example of the ineptness of filtering than the words of the Bard being censored in his homeland’s national library.

The library has since reinstated the Dane as an acceptable subject of inquiry but the incident speaks to concerns that have been bubbling over the past few weeks about David Cameron’s plans to require UK internet users to opt in to receive pornography on their computers.

The stark reality is that internet filtering has been with us since the late 1990s in public libraries, schools, colleges and universities across the UK. It is a form of censorship we do not talk about, but let us not mince words – it is censorship. The professional body for librarians in the UK is very clear that no item should be prohibited from a library’s collection except on the grounds that it is illegal within the jurisdiction to which the library is providing its service. Yet for more than a decade, libraries and other institutions have been blocking access to sites via clumsy software-driven methods that challenge the very mission they have been charged with as institutions.

Recent research conducted in our department examined the extent of filtering in Scottish public libraries. The study revealed that of the 32 public library services in Scotland, 31 filtered access to the internet on their library computers, all citing the need to block access to sexually explicit material, including images of child abuse. When queried further as to why filtering was installed, 24 of the 31 also stated that it was “to prevent access to illegal and/or inappropriate content”.

Drilling down into the data to provide an understanding of exactly what this meant in reality, 18 of the library services revealed that they blocked sites classified as containing intolerance, racism, or hate, 15 barred access to sites containing violence and extremism, and 11 included sites deemed “tasteless and offensive”. What begins as an arguably rational desire to protect children from harm actually grows arms and legs and reaches into areas of thought and free expression.

We should be under no illusions about Cameron’s plan. If successful, it is easily tweaked at a later date to block access to other sites that are deemed inappropriate.

In the case of the British Library, the Hamlet incident highlights another issue that has become the norm in libraries across the country - the provision of services such as wifi by third-parties. As external providers normally use their own networks rather than the library networks to provide such services, they often use a different filtering system entirely from the library itself.

In some cases this means the library is not setting the filtering requirements as they would on their own network. In one local case in Scotland, access to the public library’s own Twitter account was blocked within the library itself because the wifi provider automatically barred access to social networking sites.

If filtering is to become an acceptable solution to managing internet access, then we need to start a national debate on exactly what “appropriate” and “offensive” mean in the context of free expression. That filtering has been happening under the noses of the vast majority of the population, and without their input, is an unacceptable situation in a modern democracy.

Filtering may well provide an easy solution to managers and politicians who are struggling to get to grips with the technological changes that are challenging traditional notions of stewardship, information access and control, but we need much more debate and input from all citizens on what is a clumsy, inefficient, automated censorship tool and ultimately an affront to human rights.

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