Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Internet censorship at your local library

bbb20090425Brasschaat by Fantake via Flickr
When the issue of censorship comes up, often the second word that comes to people’s mind is China. So, when I had to go to our local library in Brasschaat, a little town north of Antwerp, Belgium, I was not expecting the worst internet censorship I had ever seen.
I had associated libraries as knowledge centres, not as places where they would do their best to block access to information for their visitors.
I was forced to used the library’s internet for a week, when my own internet connection was down and the library seemed to offer for a short while a good alternative. Boy, was I wrong. I did not check with other libraries to find out whether they would have similar blocking systems, but those features seldom seem to come on itself.

The screens, about a dozen in different places, were marked with signs saying that playing games was not allowed. That seemed fair enough and the friendly reminder hardly indicated that technology was blocking even more.
I could understand that downloading new software was not allowed, you might never know what you get on your machines otherwise. It was a bit of a nuisance they offered only an outdated version of Internet Explorer, but they went a bit too far by pointing at Microsoft’s search engine Bing, in stead of the leading search engine Google.
What was more than a nuisance was that opening more than one window was not allowed, at least the IE software blocked that option. Why would you block the number of windows in times that bandwidth is no longer a problem.
Fortunately, I could work around that block by opening Google’s search engine and opening from there windows to other services. Google Docs was no problem and initially even my Google reader opened. From there, I could change the url’s and open additional websites like Twitter, newspapers and even my own weblogs. That is, until a certain moment.
Then, technology must have decided I had had enough information, closed all the windows and went back to the opening window of the library. From then on, even getting to Google reader was almost impossible. I tried to order books at Amazon, but that was also not possible.

Those were only rather limited online actions. I had not even started to update my different databases, twitter accounts and weblogs. And I had not even tried to download porn to test the censorship system. Obvious, my local library did not want me to get too much information. It was a bit like forcing visitors of a library to look only at the cover of books, but stopping them from reading them.
Whoever must have thought about such a system must be somebody who really hates the internet. It was impossible to ignore the internet, but it was dealt with as a system that would stop people from reading books. That now is a very short-sighted look at the Internet.

I’m not sure whether this is common practise, but it would make sense to completely leave out the internet, in stead of offering such a crippled access.
Fortunately, a few miles down the road a local McDonalds restaurant was offering free wifi, without any restrictions. You would have to bring your own computer, but at least you could order books from Amazon and play games. For the library in Brasschaat – and who knows elsewhere in the world – it a missed opportunity. For the visitors of the library, young and old, the internet has become an indispensable tool to access information, next to books and papers. Helping them to find their way in this fast developing new world should be a necessary task for a knowledge centre that wants to keep a function in a world.

Related story: What can Europe learn from China?

Update: Ah, and the US is not much better. (h/t @lokmant)
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