British Library Network Blocks ‘Hamlet’ For ‘Violent Content’

August 12, 2013

The use of Web blocks – usually “for the children” – is becoming depressingly common these days. So much so, that many people have probably come to accept them as a fact of online life. After all, the logic presumably goes, we can’t do much about it, and anyway surely it’s a good thing to try to filter out the bad stuff? Techdirt readers, of course, know otherwise, but for anyone who still thinks that well-intentioned blocking of “unsuitable” material is unproblematic, the following cautionary tale from the British blogger W.H. Forsyth may prove instructive:

On Monday, I was sitting in the British Library frantically trying to write my new book in a shturmovshchina. I had to quickly check a particular line in Hamlet, so I Googled Hamlet MIT, because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put the entire works of Shakespeare up on the Internet. (It takes 70 mins to order a physical book). I clicked on the link and…

A message came up from the British Library telling me that access to site was blocked due to “violent content”.

The rest of the highly-entertaining blog post details attempts to get the library staff to see that there was a worrying symbolism about blocking Hamlet of all things in the British Library of all places:

The IT department said there was nothing to be done, as it was only the British Library’s wifi service that was blocking Hamlet, and the British Library’s wifi service, they seemed sure, had nothing to do with the British Library. They were merely ships that passed in the night. Children crying to each other from either bank of an uncrossable river.

As this shows, the British Library’s IT department tried to shrug this off with a “not our fault” comment to the effect that it was the wifi service doing the blocking, not the British Library, but that is just casuistry: the wifi service was being offered by the British Library to allow its users to access the Internet – an indispensable research tool these days. As one of the world’s leading repositories of knowledge, the British Library has a clear responsibility to facilitate that access. The fact that its staff seemed unperturbed by the censorship of Shakespeare in this supposed temple of British culture is also deeply troubling.

A tweet bemoaning the block had more luck: within 12 minutes, the British Library Reference Services tweeted back:

Not any more! We’ve made adjustments to the filtering software

Since the block was quickly removed, you might ask: what’s the problem? Well, maybe stuff like this, reported by @matt_sperling on Twitter, the same day as the Hamlet censorship:

various images found thru google image search were blocked

These included a painting of Lot and his Daughters by Hendrick Goltzius:

and Luca Giordano’s Battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs:

The next day, @alexvtunzelmann tweeted about continuing issues:

New @britishlibrary wifi is cranky & erratic. Has just blocked me from reading Tennyson on Project Gutenberg. Possibly on grounds of taste.

And that’s the problem: taste is highly subjective, and clearly leading here to massive overblocking on the British Library’s wifi network. The fact that the blocks were later removed misses the point: that they are inappropriate obstacles for scholars carrying out legitimate searches, and that they should never have been applied in the first place. It’s sad to see a great institution like the British Library complicit in this spread of routine and mindless censorship.