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To be, or not to be, blocked, that is the question

Phil Kalina for Stan Hywet Hall & GardensIn the latest development of over-zealous internet filtering, the British Library has blocked access to Shakespeare’s Hamlet because of its “violent content”.

The block was discovered by author Mark Forsyth, who attempted to check a line from the play over the library’s wi-fi network.

We have repeatedly warned that there is a fundamental issue with filtering legal content based on a subjective moral view, often made by a third party and not the person operating the network. Does the British Library really think that the content of Hamlet is so violent to justify access being blocked to one of the most famous plays of all time?

When parents worry about what their children might see over public wi-fi, does the British library think that the most pressing issue is if they are reading English literature?

Overblocking is an inevitable consequence of pursuing greater filtering of internet access and as the scope of content filtered expands, so will the collateral damage to legal content. Pusuit of “clean” or “safe” public wi-fi is an illusion, leading to parents having a false sense of security and expecting technology to fill the gap where parenting should be. Equally, a quick search for “how to get around my school’s Facebook block” illustrates how when faced with blocking, people who want to access content don’t have a particularly hard time circumventing blocks.

Furthermore, if a business is blocked, who will hold the legal liability for the loss of earnings? The ISP? The third party providing their filtering software? The Government?

According to the British Library it wanted to protect children visiting the building from content “such as pornography and gambling websites”. On any sane reading, Hamlet definitely does not fall into either of those categories, but still it came to be blocked.

We assume the Library will be removing any text that includes descriptions of war from its shelves, to protect the children.

While the method of internet filtering may have recieved a warm reception from various quarters, this incident acutely highlights the madness that lies ahead.

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Freedom of Expression, Internet freedom, Technology, Web blocking

14 Responses to To be, or not to be, blocked, that is the question

  1. snipergirl

    This is completely insane. It’s a library for fuck’s sake. One which probably has a publicly available early folio of the play no less.

  2. Chris

    Have you considered that this wasn’t deliberate? I imagine the library has deployed one of about a dozen leading filtering systems, probably with the default categorization and filtering options. The library itself might not even realize this has happened. Did Mark Forsyth raise a query about this, or simply assume the library has taken a draconian, sinister stance against online versions of publications it likely has on a shelf nearby? Some IT administrator is sat in an office with the tools to unblock the specific site, turn or edit the category, or indeed allow “classic literature” or whatever… he just needs to be told there’s a problem.

    • Jim_Watford

      Deliberate or not this is what happens when you start using these filters, these things are not an adequate replacement for parenting. These filters have been available for years as software to be installed on PCs and they’ve always ended up blocking what they shouldn’t and letting through the very things they’re supposed to be blocking.

  3. D

    Kids should be banned from the internet until they reach the age of 18. Why should broad minded, responsible, tax paying, consenting adults be treated like little children by the nanny state just because some parents aren’t up to the job of controlling what their kids do or see online? If you bring in censorship, what is next to be abolished, free speech, freedom of information, democracy? Political correctness to totalitarianism in one easy step – No thanks.

  4. firebird

    I’ve read this story elsewhere and it was the 3rd party WiFi NOT the library’s own terminals that had accidentally blocked it and once it had been brought to the attention of the appropriate people it was unblocked. This is seriously a non-story.

    • Simon

      This is very much a story, and the fact you report the block was lifted just reinforces the fact there will be so many false positives when Cameron’s ISP filters come into force.

  5. TT

    No matter how many times this story is debunked, it keeps doing the rounds. Please see the comments on Forsyth’s blog. The only real story here is how anyone, sitting in one of the world’s largest libraries, can assume that the only way to ‘access’ Hamlet is online.

    • John Evans

      Maybe they wanted to check a particular half-remembered quote, or find where it appears in the text. You grab your book, I’ll grab my laptop, and we’ll see who manages that task first.

      • TT

        In that situation, laptop is quicker, no question. My point is, why go to the British Library to use the internet? It’s nice that it’s there . . . but it’s not exactly the BL’s main function. As a library, its principal purpose is to allow access to material you cannot get online. Why couldn’t Forsyth have waited until he got home? Or accessed any of the hundreds of other sites that host a copy of Hamlet? (Since it seems to be only MIT’s that caused the problem). Basically, it’s not an office. He may have got used to using it as his office. But it isn’t.

        • John Evans

          Because people go to libraries when they’re doing work that involves a lot of research; who knows what other texts he was interested in on the same visit. The fact is that internet access in libraries is a natural progression of the purpose they’ve always had to be a resource for research and knowledge, and poorly managed internet access is almost as much a failing as poorly-stocked shelves. Yes, you can access it elsewhere, but walking back and forth between a library and an internet cafe while trying to write a paper would be a bit of a joke.

          • TT

            About libraries and the internet, I agree with every word of that, John. But, as a longterm user of the British Library, I know exactly how many other ways there would have been to get round the problem, including walking over to one of the library’s own free-to-access terminals and using those to call up a searchable text. Sorry, but rather than thinking, like most people lucky enough to have access to the BL, ‘how else can I do this?’, this guy seems to have spent all afternoon badgering the staff about an inability to access one website, which doesn’t suggest to me that he was exactly engrossed by and keen to get on with his research. It suggests someone actively enjoying making a mountain out of a small and easily circumnavigable molehill and then blogging about this minor inconvenience as though it were some major civil rights issue. With the result that the press has now run with the juicy ‘BL bans Hamlet’ theme and the staff of the BL – who I’ve never found less than extremely helpful when asked to do pretty much anything – are being portrayed in that same press coverage as though they were part of some Orwellian conspiracy. About libraries in general, as I say, you’re right. About the inefficacy and muddle-headedness of internet filters in general the above article is undoubtedly right. But the particular case here is misleading – not ‘BL bans Hamlet’ but ‘BL’s third-party internet filters cause temporary problem which they’re now going to fix’.

  6. John Evans

    If Hamlet was released today it would be decried as not suitable for children, no matter the quality. Maybe the lesson isn’t that this is a bad filter, but that the very idea that violent fiction is an intrinsically bad thing is wrong-headed.

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  8. Dave Walker

    Even if the content filters are relaxed to allow Hamlet, that still leaves the question of Titus Andronicus – a Shakespeare play that action film aficionados can enjoy reading for the body count, and which if Quentin Tarantino was to film it (and it would be a cracking film for him to make, even though there’s been a couple of filmed versions already) true to the script, probably wouldn’t get passed by the BBFC.

    This example shows that there is way to much confusion and too many double standards, regarding what is considered (with debatable evidence, anyway) as “harmful” or not – and this is what actually needs fixing. What we’re seeing, ultimately, is a failure to codify policy in a sufficiently consistent and rigorous manner that a computer can implement it adequately, without raising objections resulting from the inherent complexity and fuzziness (and double standards, again) of human information classification – this happens in role-based access control projects all the time, and the proposed censorship measures can be seen as a model of role-based access control where role membership is determined by chronological age.

    In a country where (for example) people are allowed to buy books containing graphic descriptions of extreme sexual acts (up to and including loss of life) at any age, aren’t allowed to engage in sexual acts until they are 16 (and are inconsistently prosecuted for it, if they do) and aren’t allowed to see footage of others engaging in sexual acts until they are 18, a computer has a whelk’s chance in a supernova of applying a consistent and logical policy of who is allowed to see what, for the simple reason that there is no means of codifying such a policy. Also, there is no API in the world, which can return a list of the ages of all the pairs of eyes looking at a given screen.

    To quote Marcus Ranum, “you can’t fix social problems, with software”.

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