Centre for Information Management

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Freedom on the Net…or filtering by default?

Should internet access in public libraries be filtered? It would seem that, in the UK at least, librarians and users think it should, according to findings from the MAIPLE project. This is a two year project funded by the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The project is investigating the measures being used in UK public libraries to prevent access to ‘undesirable’ internet content.

In embarking on the project, we had anticipated strong resistance on the part of librarians to the implementation of filtering, given the strong professional espousal of the principles of freedom of expression, freedom of access to information and repudiation of censorship in any form – however, this, so far, has not proved to be the case.

Surprisingly, there is a dearth of knowledge or statistics relating to measures such as filtering in public libraries in the UK, and relatively little in the way of professional discussion or debate around this topic. Thus we aim to both garner factual knowledge relating to what measures are being taken, and to provoke greater levels of debate and transparency around the issue.

The project has used a mixed methods approach of desk research; a questionnaire survey to all UK Public Library Authorities; in-depth case studies in five Public Library Authorities; and telephone interviews with a range of commercial Wi-Fi providers in public spaces (e.g. cafés) to facilitate cross-sectoral comparisons. As of December 2013, all field work bar the last phase (the telephone interviews) has been completed, and data analysis is almost complete.

Findings thus far suggest that filtering of internet content in public libraries in the UK is a widely accepted solution. All authorities responding to our questionnaire (n=80) reported that they filter content. When probing further in our case studies, we have found that library personnel at all levels accept this state of affairs as a pragmatic solution, even if they are not entirely comfortable with it, typified in comments such as this one from a library manager : “So I suppose, pragmatically, I’ve realised that although I may have had ethical concerns as a librarian, the reality is, I suspect, that for the half a million users we have every year, I’m not under the impression that it’s caused any particular problems”. Perhaps more surprising still, is the support that library users appear to have for filtering of content, as expressed by one young, male user who agreed that the library should filter content because “You don’t come to the library to look at porn and stuff like that, do you?”.

However, the IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and Other Information Workers,following Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is unequivocal in its protection of access by all to the full range of knowledge and information, and its rejection of censorship in any form.

I propose here that filtering software acts as a form of censorship and that, according to the Code of Ethics, should not be used as a default solution for the provision of internet access in public libraries. Instead greater attention should be given to consideration of alternative approaches to protecting users from ‘harmful’ online content, in particular, the role of education.

Another important (but perhaps not surprising) finding, is the extent of dependence user groups have on internet access in the public library. These are not the much trumpeted middle class users, but the young unemployed, who can’t afford broadband subscriptions or smartphones, and the older ‘silver surfers’ who don’t have the skills or competences to navigate the digital minefield without some help and support.

Now that the Cabinet Office has declared that all government services and transactions should be ‘digital by default’ and job applications have to be made online, with job centres routinely directing clients to the public library, the role of the public library as provider of internet access is gaining greater rather than lesser importance. And yet, these users are only able to access part of the great knowledge repository that is the web (an example of the negative impact of filtering was given by the chance finding that the British Library’s filter blocked access to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as it was categorised as ‘violent’. We are hoping that this project will direct attention to revisit this ‘blunt instrument’ of a solution and will lead to the development of more innovative and user-friendly approaches.

You can find out more about the MAIPLE project on our website and follow our progress via our blog or by following us on Twitter.



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