British Library Network Blocks 'Hamlet' For 'Violent Content'

from the infinite-jest dept

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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “British Library Network Blocks 'Hamlet' For 'Violent Content'”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Ninja (profile) says:

Notice it’s blocked without any reasonable way to access the content even if you don’t feel offended or if you are of legal age for such content. This is downright censorship.

What about blocking anything religion related? After all it may be offensive to atheists no? Why not block everything Allah doesn’t approve? After all it might be offensive to Muslims, no?

As for me just block Justin Bieber, it’s offensive to me ;/

out_of_the_blue says:

Holy cow! Anomaly discovered and FIXED in 12 minutes!

Yes, I DO ask you, minion: what’s the problem? You do grasp that the fix took LESS time than you wasted writing this up, right?

Here’s a rule: unless intended and persistent and totally unfixed, ignore anomalies.

Masnicking: daily spurts of short and trivial traffic-generating items.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Holy cow! Anomaly discovered and FIXED in 12 minutes!

Doesn’t matter how fast the fix took, the problem is that fucking SHAKESPEARE of all things was being blocked at all. We shouldn’t have to ask the IT staff any time something non-controversial like Hamlet gets blocked “please Sir, can I haz Shakespeare?”
Then again, that’s the world you want to live in. A world of having to ask permission for everything and keeping quiet if you’re denied.

silverscarcat (profile) says:

Re: Holy cow! Anomaly discovered and FIXED in 12 minutes!

ignore anomalies

By that logic, you shouldn’t exist.

and why should we ignore anomalies?

once is an anomaly, twice is a pattern, three times is a trend.

WHich means, for your addled brain, if we ignore “anomalies”, they become something bigger.

Remember this quote, memorize it well…

“First they came for speech I did not like, and I said nothing. Then they came for speech that did not affect me, again, I said nothing. When they came for speech that affected me, no one was around to say anything.”

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Holy cow! Anomaly discovered and FIXED in 12 minutes!

“By that logic, you shouldn’t exist.”

As a percentage, very few posts on the average article are reported and hidden. By his logic, his comments and those of the AC who whines about it are simply anomalies and the reporting should be ignored.

I wonder if he and his ilk will take his own advice? Doubtful.

Anyway, to expand your quote, such obvious “anomalies” should be heeded and taken note of very closely. If something so obviously acceptable – and even necessary for childrens’ education in many areas (Shakespeare is part of the national curriculum) – is being blocked, then who knows what other, less obviously acceptable or necessary content is being blocked? Not to mention the wider point that the right wing tosser currently in charge wants to enforce this kind of unworkable censorship on the entire country.

Anonymous Coward says:

How to get around just about any online blocking.

1) Find an online webpage translator

2) Translate the blocked webpage from any language to English, even though you know the webpage is already in English.

And presto, you get around the web blocking. I used to do this all the time in high school, including when I was doing research reports and had to get to blocked .edu websites. (yeah, you’d think a .edu website should never be blocked in a school)

dante866 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Many online blocker’s will flag this as proxy avoidance, which it is in the usage you’re describing. I know my Websense box at work notices translation pages and flags the ones that match offending URL’s in it’s blacklist file as blocked.

A better way to get around online blocking is to police the enforcers by making sure they are aware, and follow up on, the notices of incorrect blocking.

Michael (profile) says:

The bigger point

The bigger point is that these works are being blocked from people that do not know they exist. Of course, we hear Shakespear and know who he is, but how about the many less-known artists being blocked? How many thousands of lines of important culture are being filtered from researchers when they search for simpler terms in an attempt to find culturally important work?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: The bigger point

Just as big an issue would be ‘we hear Shakespeare now and know who he is’, as efforts like this almost seemed aimed at removing parts of history by acting like they simply didn’t exist.

It’s one thing to say ‘This is Shakespeare, an amazing playwright with a number of plays to his name including…’ and have students read, examine and act out his various plays, but if the plays themselves are prohibited from being accessed and read due to being ‘obscene’ or ‘violent’, then they might as well not have existed at all, and Shakespeare’s name, cultural impact, and the plays will simply fade away as no longer relevant.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: The bigger point

excellent point…

it would only be the already hugely famous works/authors who would be noticed (IF THEY ARE) when they go awol; ‘minor’ or unknown authors/works might not be noticed by anyone…

geez, just one in a series of a million reasons why such ‘filtering’ (read: CENSORSHIP) will be HARMFUL to society…

the thing is, i truly believe The They ™ WANT to ‘harm’ us, in that keeping us as stupid, clueless, and ignorant as possible suits THEIR agenda…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Jonathan Chance says:

Re: Sad times

Well, let’s take a look at Audrey Barnhart, the censor-happy head librarian (a/k/a The Iron Ayatollah) of the Texas County (MO) Library System. Under her regime there is censorware on the library computers and thousands of dollars have been squandered on a log-in/time-limiting program called Pharos. She is pro-censorship, and someone who is pro-censorship should obviously never occupy the position of head librarian. Fortunately, I hear tell that she will be retiring in October. I hope freedom will be restored by the one who takes her place…but I won’t hold my breath.

Librarian (aka corrupter of kids) says:

Re: Sad times

Money my dear boy.

A public library in Capelle aan de IJssel (part of the dutch biblebelt) in the Netherlands was basically blackmailed, the city council said: “either you filter the internet, or we stop funding your little library”.

When they refused a member of the council who was also tv-editor of a dutch alarmist watchdog show basically ran to his desk and penned a scathing show that basically said:

LIBRARIES ARE DENS OF DEPRAVITY, THEY ALLOW YOUR KIDS TO WATCH PORN! (those were fun weeks, we basically got called a bunch of porn peddling criminals).

Eventually it was settled in court, but council never gave up as they did finally get a few computers to filter the internet.

Anonymous Coward says:

Devil's Advocate

I feel that the whole Hamlet argument is somewhat disingenuous. The library is blocking based on the content of the media, not the value of the media. To me, this seems like the right way to set up a filter. Hamlet _does_ include references to murder, suicide, and incest (at least according to Hamlet), and a significant portion of the cast dies on stage.

I’d be happy if the British Library abandoned net filtering entirely, but that’s not going to happen. I’d be happy in a different way if someone figured out how to automate a “literary value” test, but that’s even less likely to happen. Given what they have to work with, isn’t a value-agnostic filter a better solution than only allowing access to a pre-defined list of materials?

Liz (profile) says:

Re: Devil's Advocate

How do you judge what has literary value? It seems to me that the only metric for violence in media is the age of the composition itself. Hamlet would be fine since it’s by Shakespeare and was first published in 1603. Yet Scarface would be blocked since it only goes back to 1932 (the Al Pacino remake in 1983).

Wally (profile) says:


Hold up TechDirt…. The IT department may be correct in this case. I don’t think the British Public Library System is to blame here for the censorship. I’m a fan of TopGear UK and Jeremy Clarkson made a rather startling point that the new national filtering system blocks pretty much any picture that contains the color orange, or any type of skin tones. Given libraries are generally public places, I think it’s safe to assume they’d be the first to get the new filter system.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

yes, excellent quote, been a while since i heard that one…

it is a companion aphorism to the other major point about speech i like to make: CONTEXT is everything…

surely, nothing could be more ‘nice’ than saying someone is ‘pretty’ and you’d like to ‘kiss’ them…
unless you are in a biker bar and it is one hetero dude taunting another hetero dude…

surely, nothing could be more ‘obscene’ than a string of disgusting expletives about yo’ mama in the face of another…
unless it is your buds and you’ve been drinking and someone just made a lucky shot…


there are no ‘bad’ words, just small minds…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...