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Library bans you from finding out about pits, perverts and Pride

Library bans you from finding out about pits, perverts and Pride

Pride, the film of how lesbian and gay activists gave support to the striking miners in 1984/5, may be a hit at the box office.

It is not quite such a hit with Hertfordshire Council, a county north of London, whose public Wi-Fi filters have deemed a Wikipedia page detailing the history of this campaign is ‘adult content’ and as such in breach of their conditions of use.

After watching the film on Monday night, I wanted to know more about events of that year. Since I was working in Letchworth library at the time, I logged on through Hertfordshire public Wi-Fi network.

My searches eventually identified a Wikipedia page dedicated to a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

 

Attempting to access that page, I was blocked: a warning message flashed up telling me that I had tried to access a web page in breach of Hertfordshire Libraries’ Conditions of Use policy.

The only further information provided was this was in accordance with their ‘webbloker’ (sic) policy, ‘WebBlocker.1’.

The librarians were helpful but unable to do anything: they suggested I fill out a comments card which would be submitted to the council’s central operations team for consideration.

The official line from Hertfordshire Council was emollient. 

They told me: ‘We’re sorry to hear you’ve encountered this problem with our Wi-Fi service and our technical staff are currently investigating.

‘Hertfordshire County Council’s library service has no restrictions on the search terms "gay" and "lesbian" on our library networks and we have carried out checks today using a smart device using Letchworth Library’s Wi-Fi, which accessed the link mentioned with no problems.

‘We use exactly the same "Fortiguard" filtering system for both our broadband "People’s Network" computers and our Wi-Fi.

‘Hertfordshire County Council’s library service champions LGBT authors as you’ll see on the Booklist available from the county council’s website; for example, the selection of LGBT booklists promoted on our website.’

Don’t worry, Hertfordshire, I believe you. Sort of.

I really don’t think you sat down in a darkened room thinking up ways to disadvantage the LGBTI community. You didn’t intend to. But a series of decisions you have taken have done precisely that.

Let’s start with that ‘how to complain’ response.

Fill in a card. Hand it to the librarians.

Not impressed! When a similar block occurred in Lincolnshire libraries a year ago (that time, when I looked up rape statistics on one of the leading feminist sites in the US), it was at least possible to submit a query online. Hertfordshire’s policy seems deliberately designed to discourage individuals complaining.

It is especially pernicious when you consider that many of those likely to be seeking information about LGBTI issues may be teenagers on the verge of coming out: embarrassed, insecure, relying on public Wi-Fi, because they don’t dare carry out these searches at home or school.

The last thing they want to do is out themselves by filling in a written complaint.

It is particularly ironic that this happened during my first week of using Hertfordshire online services. Earlier this year, I chaired a Commons meeting at which Members of Parliament, and representatives from the charity, education and the online industries met to discuss the impact of over-blocking on minority groups.

A clear concern then was that by using filter systems imported from overseas – mainly the US, but some from China, too – public bodies were inadvertently importing systems with legal and cultural biases that sat uneasily with UK Equality Act.

There were encouraging noises from the online industry. Some of the more egregious blocks on LGBTI sites have ceased to happen.

Still, it remains a live issue. Few businesses would dare operate a filtering scheme that overtly discriminated against LGBTI sites. Yet, so long as the workings of these systems remain shrouded in mystery, there remains a concern that at some level there is a subtle weighting in the software, with the result that filtering systems continue to make the failed and dangerous presumption of a link between sexuality and impropriety. This, in turn, reinforces the view that somehow the combination of LGBTI and sex is more dangerous than any other combination.

Over the last few months, I have discussed this with Members on both sides of the House. My aim is to obtain parliamentary support for a commitment to ensure that filtering in the UK is fully compliant with UK equalities legislation. Not just in principle, but in terms of outcome.

This would force any business or public body that operates a filtering system to take on responsibility for the outputs of that system. No more would they be able to hide behind the excuse that its very complicated and they have no intention of discriminating. The fact of discrimination should be enough.

The response from Labour and Liberal Democrat benches has so far been positive.

Given the Conservatives recent conversion to ‘English votes for English laws’, I would hope they will be equally forthcoming. After all: UK filters for UK services doesn’t seem too big an ask.

If you’d like to join me in this campaign, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.