Tag Archives: literacy

Should UK universities block access to parts of the web?

The following post was submitted by Daniel Payne.

Image c/o Gerardofegan on Flickr.

Either a subset of the internet – or no internet – is ever accessible to any individual. We are never using the Internet, if that even exists. This is due to a variety of positive and negative mechanisms which include the state, the law, the self, whether you actually have internet access at all, internet service providers, friends, teachers, financial situation, cultural reasons, and your mum.

It might come as a surprise to learn that universities and other higher education institutions throughout the UK choose to block categories of the internet beyond what is required of them by law, from sex and abortion, to naturism, online greeting cards, and marijuana. This is often referred to as “content-filtering” by the companies who perform the blocking, since this sounds less bad.

As information professionals working in the libraries of these institutions, should we care that we are working in an environment which automatically excludes whole categories of the internet? Why does a university pay money to do this, and who decides which categories to block and why?

There are of course parts of the internet which are blocked before the university steps in. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) maintains a constantly changing list called the Child Abuse Image Content list (CAIC). Companies which give us access to the internet subscribe to this list and block these parts of web. There are also websites blocked by order of a court. These are usually file sharing sites where major infringement of intellectual property occurs. Try accessing: http://www.thepiratebay.se.

In addition to that which is legally required, many universities license third-party content filtering software such as BrightCloud, Websense, Smoothwall, Bloxx, and Fortiguard [1]. In response to a request for a webpage, the software will either allow or block access depending on which categories the university has selected (and as is the case in some universities, the profile of the individual requesting it).

So what categories are universities choosing to block? Under the Freedom of Information Act, I contacted universities to find out whether any blocking on  their networks occurred, and if so, what categories they blocked. Where universities claimed an exemption to disclose a list of URLs due to perceived security implications, subsequent requests were made to ascertain the “categories” by which websites were blocked (i.e. pornography).

Here is the good news: of the 119 higher education institutions I received a response from, 63% confirmed they did not carry out internet blocking [2]. Indeed, some institutions such as Imperial College, pointed out that blocking parts of the internet would be against the principles of academic freedom.

Here is (some) of the bad news. A  full list of responses is available on figshare [3]:

  • 10% refused to confirm or deny that they did or didn’t block parts of the internet.
  • Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance blocks the category “abortion” for junior users.
  • In addition to “adult”, Queen’s University Belfast also blocks “naturism”.
  • University of Aberdeen and Nottingham Trent University block “marijuana”.
  • There are a whole host of vague categories such as “questionable”, “tasteless”, “extreme politics”, “violence”, “unethical”, and “intolerance”.

Universities who carry out the category-based blocking described above are keen to point out that they have mechanisms in place where an individual can request that a block is lifted. However, this can often involve seeking permission from the head of department, or submitting an evidence form which justifies your need to access that material;  processes which will never be immediate and could be humiliating. Should an adult have to get permission to access porn? Are the number of adult individuals in UK universities getting off on porn on library computers in full view of everyone else endemic enough to warrant this?  What about a 15 year old looking up abortion?

The 10% which refused to provide any information at all generally did so by claiming an exemption under section 31(1)(a) of the Act, which permits public bodies to withhold information in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime. My only comment on this would be how surprising it is that 63% of universities didn’t think this.

Universities and these content-filtering companies cannot or will not release very detailed information on these categories, since doing so would provide  information for the individuals or organisations behind those URLs to attempt to circumvent their designated classification. We therefore don’t really know much about how companies decide which webpages are “unethical”, or “questionable”.

Universities and their libraries are about creating, disseminating, questioning, and archiving information. The biggest possible subset of the Internet out there in the wild should not be reduced any further by universities according to an arbitrary, “undesirable” set of categories, but offered alongside digital literacy skills which empower students to judge information for themselves, not make judgements on there behalf.


[1] Some universities freely volunteered the name of their content filtering software. Some, when requested, disclosed this information. Others specifically refused due to “commercial” interest reasons. The list of content-filtering companies here have all been mentioned by at least one university.

[2] Where a university responded by stating that it only blocked malware/spam sites, this was counted as a “no blocking” response.

[3]Payne, Daniel (2014): Categories of websites blocked by UK universities. figshare.
http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1106875 Retrieved 17:12, Jul 23, 2014 (GMT)


This post represents the opinions and thoughts of the author alone. Any information obtained is believed to be accurate. If you believe there are errors, please get in touch.

Should access to the internet be a fundamental right…for everyone?

(Image c/o gianni on Flickr)

Overcoming the divide between the richest and the poorest in society has always been a significant challenge. The wealthiest in society have always been in a position to afford the services required to improve their quality of life: better healthcare, better education etc etc. In the twentieth century, particularly post-1945, there were renewed efforts to address this disparity through the introduction of the National Health Service, a functioning welfare system and free secondary education for all pupils.

Between 1910-1979, the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest in the UK dropped significantly, particularly after 1936. Since that period, however, the trend has been in the opposite direction as the wealthiest take a larger share of income than at any point since 1940. This widening of the divide between the richest and the poorest is, in part, a symptom of the watering down of the post-1945 social contract, characterised by a move away from the primacy of society towards the primacy of the individual. Technological advances have, however, provided an opportunity to close this gap once more.

However, as yet, this potential has yet to be realised, not least due to the expense of the technology and the skills required to exploit it. Indeed, whilst the impact of easier access by the public to relevant information has been felt to a degree, the continued existence of a digital divide hampers progress towards the more equitable society the technology can help to deliver.

At present, there are around 7 million people in the UK who have never accessed the internet (the number without access is obviously higher). The divide presents a number of difficulties for those without access to the internet. For example, it can hamper their child’s performance at school. It can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to their health and, as preventative care pushes up the agenda, the implications for the unconnected are stark. It can affect them economically, both in terms of the savings they would make and as a consequence of welfare reforms by the UK coalition in pushing social security online. Closing this divide can, therefore, improve life chances and help to shrink the gap between the richest and the poorest (it obviously won’t eliminate the gap on its own, that would require more wide-ranging action).

As government services have shifted online, the commercial potential for ever faster broadband has begun to be realised and the economic benefits of getting everyone online are talked up, there has been an awareness of the importance of addressing the divide between those connected to the internet and those that are not. However, one group is often excluded when it comes to identifying and supporting the so-called ‘information poor’ – prisoners.

Towards the end of last year, the Prison Reform Trust and Prisoners’ Education Trust released a report on computer and internet access in prisons. Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation [PDF 1.46MB] explores the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in prisons and its potential impact on rehabilitation. Based on a survey of prisons sent to all prison governors and directors in England and Wales supported by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), a focus group of prisoners’ families, prison visits and expert roundtables, the report argues that drastic change is needed and access to ICT should be reconsidered.

(Image c/o Marc Soller via Flickr.)

Now, some might argue that if you are in prison you lose your liberty and therefore any right to access services such as the internet. However, whether we like it or not, many prisoners are only removed from society on a temporary basis, they will have to be reintegrated at some point. As such, we need to consider their return to society, their re-integration and, of course, provide the necessary support to help ensure that they do not re-offend. As the Prison Trust underline in their coverage of the report on their website, nearly half of all prisoners (47%) are reconvicted within a year of their release. Furthermore, in 2011-12, “just 27% of prisoners entered employment on release from prison”. The challenge for us as a society is to reduce the re-offending rate and ensure that prisoners are not pushed to the edges of society once they have finished serving their sentence.

Changes to the welfare system are in danger of making integration increasingly difficult for those released from prison. With the government pushing job seekers online to find work or suffer associated penalties, it is more crucial than ever that prisoners are not left behind and therefore placed at a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding work. The scale of the problem is reinforced in the report:

47% of prisoners say they have no qualifications. This compares to 15% of the working age general population in the UK.

21% of prisoners reported needing help with reading and writing or ability with numbers.

With such a lack of skills, it is clear that significant support is needed in getting prisoners online, preparing them for work outside of prison and ensuring they are not left behind or penalised by the government’s new social security regime. When almost a half of prisoners have no qualifications whatsoever and 1 in 5 need help with reading and writing, there are clearly significant barriers ahead in terms of their re-integration into society. As two prisoners noted in the report:

“Here’s why you need internet for resettlement: to keep up with changes outside – job criteria can change while you’re inside; checking on housing by particular postcodes – co-ordinated with your conditions of release.”

“It’s a bit of a risk – being linked into the internet – but the bigger risk is sending people out who are not able to cope and who cannot find gainful employment.”

The provision of internet access to prisoners can not only help develop their skills and ensure they are not left behind after they have served their sentence, it can also help to further their education. The growth of Massive Open Online Learning Courses (MOOCs) provides the opportunity for opening up education for all free of charge (provided they are online of course). Why should those with the skills to utilise the internet be prevented from furthering their education and helping to increase their chances of employment after their release? If we are to be serious about reducing re-offending rates, then shouldn’t we be looking at all the options and see an internet connection not as a luxury, but an important tool in helping to ensure prisoners can be re-integrated after serving their time?

Prison libraries could play a key role in ensuring access is provided and the technical skills of prisoners are developed. However, they are hampered by a number of restrictions placed upon them. Librarians working in prisons are severely restricted as a result of their equipment being connected to a tightly controlled prison network. Many sites are blocked, including blogs, social media and sometimes government websites. Although such restrictions are in place, prisoners are still not permitted to use the library computer because it is connected to the internet. Instead, prisoners are only provided access to standalone computers that are not connected to the internet and only permit the user to play games or write legal letters. That is, of course, if their prison is lucky to have any computers at all.

Whilst there may be legitimate concerns about the kind of material certain prisoners may attempt to access, such restrictions are not helpful in trying to ensure their reintegration into society when their sentence is served. The opportunities available online to learn new skills, not to mention the opportunity to learn basic ICT skills with the help of a trained prison librarian, can play a significant role in reducing the re-offending rate and provide former prisoners with the opportunity to make a more positive contribution to society. As Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, notes in the report’s foreword:

“We can’t go on with prisons in a pre-internet dark age: inefficient, wasteful and leaving prisoners woefully unprepared for the real world they will face on release. I have not met one prison professional who does not think drastic change is needed.”

If we want to reduce reoffending and ensure a more equitable society, then we need to address the digital divide that exists not only across our communities, but between our communities and those that have been excluded from them. It will prove controversial with many, but as the world rapidly changes around us, we need to ensure that those excluded can be reintegrated into a world that can be very different from the one they were excluded from.