The following is a comment piece by a contributor who has asked to remain anonymous, on how suggested introduction of web filtering software can and will impact upon practice.
In July 2013, David Cameron announced that he wanted filters against online porn turned on by default on the internet connections of all UK households. The impact of this proposal has been analysed in depth by many experts, all with more expertise than me, so I’m not going to rehash their explanations. What I am going to do is look at how these controls might work in practice.
I work as an Information Officer in a public body. In this role, I may be asked to research any topic which is either of current interest to my employer, or which is likely to become so in future. My employer is also obliged due to its position to impose a rather more draconian control on online resources than I have been used to in previous employment in the private and higher education sectors. The filter being used in my workplace is also highly inconsistent in its blocking actions, as the proposed filters are predicted to be.
Here are some of the most regularly encountered examples of sites and materials which are blocked in my workplace:
- Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (but Twitter can be accessed via TweetDeck)
- Photo hosting sites linked to Twitter (Twitpic, Instagram etc)
- Weblogs (but only those from certain providers: Blogger is blocked but WordPress is fine)
- Videos (certain ones: Youtube is blocked, but not Vimeo)
- Audio files such as podcasts (BBC etc)
- Presentation sites (Slideshare is blocked, but not Prezi)
- MOOCs such as Coursera
- Link shorteners (is.gd, bit.ly etc)
- Microsoft help pages (don’t ask me why – attempting to access these actually gives a message saying “Your internet access has been revoked”!)
Certain sites can be accessed (in a wonky/stripped format), but due to the filter blocking some images the actual login button doesn’t exist, or an essential action button, which effectively adds them to an unofficial block list. The filter often doesn’t say that a page is blocked, it just gives a “this web page is not available” message, and when the “More” button is clicked, the options given are “This web page might be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new web address”. When first encountered this message leads to confusion, and leads users to spending time checking with other people both internally and external to the company to see if they can access the page, or if there are network problems preventing internet access.
In my daily work I create internal briefings of relevant professional news, which are required in order to keep users informed about important developments in their specific work areas. Due to the filter, these briefings can only refer to text materials: any information delivered by non-textual methods cannot be accessed, and Twitter accounts which may be providing relevant information are blocked. With the shift by many bodies and companies away from providing RSS feeds, and towards using Twitter as an official information source, large amounts of information are becoming inaccessible to the users of my service.
Nonetheless, I try and monitor sources providing information via Twitter, and I currently manage to avoid the Twitter block by accessing it via a Tweetdeck extension on the Chrome browser. Once on TweetDeck, I skim for relevant information. If my contacts provide information via a link, Twitter/TweetDeck automatically shortens it…but of course, link shorteners are blocked by the filter. To view a link provided via Twitter, I must:
- Click on the link provided on Twitter
- Get an Access Blocked page
- Copy the link displayed on the block page
- Open longurl.org
- Paste the link in, and hit submit
- Click on the lengthened link displayed, to visit the page
This is not an efficient or reasonable way of working to source information, but it’s currently the only option possible for me within this filtering environment.
The blocks imposed are also highly inconsistent, with page categorisations changing by the day. This means that I can never be sure that a resource I access one day will be accessible the next day, or vice versa.
So, that’s what it’s like trying to work and provide an effective information service within a heavily filtered environment. It’s a struggle, with lots of time wasted trying to circumvent blocks that are imposed without enough thought about how they will impact on users. My ability to help my users is hampered, in a myriad of small but nonetheless important and time-consuming ways. My users are being blocked from accessing information sources, whether they realise it or not, and they may not have either the time or the ability to circumvent these blocks. Each individual user is the best judge of what materials they may need to inform their work, not an automated filtering system, but if those individuals can’t see the full range of information available, how can they decide whether it’s useful or not?
Many schools and universities will already have similar filters put in place to “protect” their students. As you can see though, in reality the filters are not effectively protecting anyone. Instead, what they actually do is make reliable and regular access to information and information sources complicated, or even impossible. It means that those who have to work within the current filtering system actually need more support for their online needs than those working outside it, to assist them in finding ways of accessing the resources they need, in a way which the filtering software deems acceptable. A schoolchild trying to use the internet for homework research will be blocked from accessing or using relevant resources, and the development of their knowledge and understanding may suffer. Adults without advanced internet skills will be confronted with “alert” block screens for what they may have felt to be innocuous search terms: for those who have limited computer skills, this can be a serious blow to their confidence online, and discourage them from using online resources in future.
Sometimes however, there’s no method or tool to use to get around the filtering limits. Some sites are just…unavailable. Entirely. This is online censorship, and in this context, it is state-imposed censorship. I can think of a few countries in which state imposed censorship is the default position, and they are not countries where the population could be considered to be well informed, or fully engaged in the political process. In light of a developing belief that the right to access the internet without unreasonable restriction is now a core human right, any move to restrict that access in any way is a massive backwards step for any government.