Poor implementation of internet-filtering policies in the UK's public libraries has damaged public access to exactly the kind of information local library computers are intended to provide, according to a just-released batch of data from a collection of library professionals.
Despite the possibility for filtering to be implemented as an effective policy, a lack of intelligent oversight of the filtered material has been revealed through a series of FOIA requests.
The resultant dataset, made public on Sunday, showed how local authorities' top-down content filtering policies are inadvertently preventing vulnerable users' from accessing acceptable content regarding sexual health, abortions, and LGBT help.
The dataset was compiled from figures from more than 200 local authorities, by colleagues from the Radical Librarians Collective, a group of information professionals and librarians invested in their professions' ethical commitment to aiding access to information.
It shows a number of councils have filtered access to information which would typically fall within their acceptable use policies, including information likely to be sought by vulnerable users who may be avoiding snooping figures at home.
Talking to The Register, Lauren Smith, a PhD candidate and researcher who contributed to the project, stated the researchers intended to "contribute to the development of policy and practice in librarianship".
"Librarianship is a chartered profession which requires library and information professionals to uphold ethical and professional standards," Smith told us. "One of the components of the professional ethics for librarians is to 'make the process of providing information, and the standards and procedures governing that process, as clear and open as possible'".
This relates to freedom of access to information. However, librarians also have an ethical duty to protect the safety and wellbeing of their vulnerable users, which includes young people for example, and safeguarding may sometimes pose ethical dilemmas within professional librarianship.
Content filtering is one of the ways this is done in libraries. However, the top-down system implemented by nearly all councils has lead to the widespread filtering of web-pages offering advice on LGBT issues, sexual education (including that regarding sexuality), and abortion.
The blocks, such as that on abortion, are probably "completely inadvertent" suggested Smith, who claimed it was likely included as a "sub-category of sexual content", implemented by the council's IT department and not assessed by the library staff themselves.
One researcher, known to Smith, was investigating female genital mutilation (FGM) but found that the sites they were attempting to access had been blocked as they contained sexual content. Smith told us:
The individual who was conducting research on FGM was confident enough in his right of access to information and what he needed to do to get the websites unblocked, and was therefore able to access the information he needed.
Other users, such as young people questioning their gender or sexual identities, are much less likely to know what and how to assert their rights, and may not feel comfortable or safe asking for access to the information they are blocked from.
The use of filtering may therefore inadvertently serve as a barrier to access to information that supports the development and wellbeing of young people.
"Another surprising thing is the very low number of requests to unblock websites made by people," said Smith, suggesting that users do not know that such blocks may be lifted upon request, or who are uncomfortable with the thought of approaching library staff with their issues.
A spokesperson from Open Rights Group, which "exists to preserve and promote your rights in the digital age", according to its website, concurred, stating that the "findings show that that filters are a blunt instrument that are censoring many websites, including those that provide important advice and support".
"Library users should not be denied access to sites that contain information about, for example, abortion, sex education and LGBT issues, but many people will be reluctant to make libraries aware of this when it happens," it added.
"Some local councils do not have filters in place at all – if they are able to do this and do not consider themselves to be placing their citizens at risk, other councils could look to taking steps in this direction," Smith noted, adding that "this could potentially save a lot of money", with some councils involved in six-figure contracts to support web-blocking over multi-year periods.
On a practical level, it is crucial for library users to know how they can gain access to sites that are currently blocked – there should be clear and accessible guidelines at the point that users reach a barrier, and there should be a way for users to request access that does not make them uncomfortable or put them in danger.
Local authorities "really do need to sit down and consider how paternalistic they're being by preventing access to these categories of information," said Smith. ®