British Library blocks Shakespeare online

British Library blocks Shakespeare online

On the face of it – this makes absolute sense at the same time as it’s incredulous… 

After all, Shakespeare as a playwright is often extremely violent.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern playwright that dealt with cannibalism, extreme sexual violence, masculine aggression, etc. in the same way that ‘Titus Andronicus’ does (perhaps the works of Sarah Kane or  Mark Ravenhill comes closest).

That said,  the British Library IT staff clearly realised that an error had been made blocking Wi-Fi access to Shakespeare online. The speed with which it was unblocked makes that obvious.

This raises a number of questions:

  • Why would you decide to block online content in the first place? The protection of minors is the usual argument. This is one of those fail-safe positions that it’s felt people cannot argue against. Actually, I’m not unsympathetic to filters (particularly where the material is illegal). As a former teacher I’m also disturbed by the type of content that younger people can increasingly access. But, what does it say about our society’s understanding of younger peoples’ identities, comprehension and needs that our fall-back position is to block content we find difficult – not to discuss it? Are there not dangers inherent in treating childhood and adolescence as some idealised though fragile period of purity (Jack Halberstam calls it ‘the eternal sunshine of the spotless child’)?
  • Who has responsibility for choosing which content to block and maintaining those filters? From my own experiences in schools the regulation of content increasingly falls to IT staff and administrators who may have no understanding of the content they’ve blocked. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve recommended sites to LGBT or sexual minority students (who may have good reasons for not accessing that material at home) only to be told that the site is blocked or permission is required. Or the number of times that I’ve gone to look up something for a lesson plan in a school to find that the site was blocked (this happens with sad regularity with .edu and .ac sites which are mainly educational). You then become caught in the process of seeking to have content unblocked which, in my experience, is made so difficult that most staff and students will choose not to bother.
  • Why are certain texts, images and recordings acceptable even though their content may be as graphic or disturbing as other blocked works? Why is Shakespeare fine (the glitch with the British Library notwithstanding)? Despite the discussions of the protection of minors, to what extent are judgements being made about who has the right to access online content based  on class, social mobility, educational level, etc.? I’m not disputing that there are certain texts, images and recording that may need to be blocked. But the context is important. If we have an idealised child who must be protected from dangerous content, is it not the case that we also have an idealised adult who is privileged by their class and educational level to have more or less free access to the same material? Isn’t that the danger – that we’re not protecting children but filtering adults?
  • What is the impact of blocking sites? As a teacher you see the impact of prohibition all around you. It’s not just that certain texts, images or recordings are unavailable online (though given the increasing reliance of online resources in teaching this is a considerable impact). It’s the level to which staff internalise those prohibitions so that particularly younger people are only offered ‘safe’ content. Or the material is taught in such a way as to avoid dangerous readings. Try to get a English department to consider the inherent misogyny in ‘Hamlet’ and you’ll see what I mean.
  • And finally, does it work? In schools you know that half of the kids in the school are using proxy servers to circumvent the filtering. I was teaching a GCSE class on satire who had really engaged with the subject so I wanted to push them a little by showing some scenes  from a graphic novel version of ‘A modest proposal’. Swift’s monologue is considered a masterpiece of satire, but it does deal with cannibalism. Finding that the site was blocked wasn’t such a surprise – it was trying to get it unblocked by IT that was the pain. In the end, I just went around the filters. But, what signal is that sending to younger people? Aren’t we in danger of pushing younger people towards that very sites that we claim to be protecting them from? By adopting such a broad cavalier attitude to filtering online content the real danger, it seems to me, is that younger people are encouraged to access content in the less discussed, most unregulated manner with no sense of context. We may be able to argue that this is not our fault; particularly if we can state that we have met our obligations to block content. Again, I have no disagreement with wanting to protect minors, but how often is that argument used to protect adults by following regulations. Or more disturbingly, how often is it used to justify censoring texts, images and recordings that adults find difficult where there is actually no child or adolescent protection issue involved?

In Ireland, one of the arguments that used to be given for having the Bible and Mass in Latin was that it stopped people having their own opinions (where the Devil might tempt them into the wrong meaning). It required a priest, the right sort, to decide what could and couldn’t be made accessible to the common person. I find it difficult not to see the remnants of this attitude in the way we commonly approach younger peoples’ access to online content.