Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Hamlet is Banned


File:Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 018.jpg
Because of all the attention this post is getting, I ought to point out that I was not intending to disclose some outrageous Orwellian conspiracy, merely incompetence and inertia. I wrote the post because of 1) The amusing absurdity of the greatest work of British literature being blocked by the British Library. 2) The evident silliness of filtering systems, particularly one that blocks mit.edu but not facebook. 3) The frustration of dealing with institutions that disown their own Internet provider. 4) The miserable truth that over the last couple of years the failures of the BL's wifi - whether broken, slow or filtered - has forced researchers to choose, reluctantly, between books and the Internet.

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".

Now, Hamlet is a violent play. I see that. When the curtain comes down there's a lot of bodies on the boards. But...

But...

I tried it again. It told me that my attempts to access this violent content were being logged.

I took my computer over to the information desk, and after I had explained to them what MIT stood for (really), they called the IT department and told them about the webpage that I had been blocked from. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html

They had to spell out Shakespeare letter by letter. Really. Ess. Aitch. Ay. Kay...

I asked them if they were surprised that Hamlet was now banned in the British Library. They shrugged. I asked them how it was that I could still access youtube, facebook and twitter. I asked why the girl at the next desk to me had been able to spend the last half hour on Guardian Soulmates, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's website was banned. They shrugged.

I asked if they saw the problem, perhaps just the symbolism, of Hamlet being banned in the British Library. They shrugged.

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.

'But,' I said. It's one of those points where you just want somebody to understand the central point. 'The British Library has banned Hamlet for being too violent.'

And the lady behind the desk nodded and smiled.

It's one of those points where I don't know whether they're insane, or if it's me. Maybe Hamlet should be banned. I wrote an angry e-mail, and this morning I got one back saying they're looking into it. But maybe I should give all this up and get a job as a lighthouse keeper. But I fear I'd still have those dreams, those dreams about that man with poison sword and the people fighting in the grave and the venom being poured down my throat. O God! God!

UPDATE: The British Library has just tweeted to say that Hamlet is now unbanned.


Ess Aitch Ay Kay Eee Ess Pee Eee Ay Ar Eee

This content has been blocked because it does not comply with the acceptable usage policy.


The request was logged.

Category
Education and Reference [BETA], Web Content, News, Safe Content Filetypes, Violence, Web Content
Group
Registered Users
IP
10.3.13.246
Reason
Content of type Violence blocked: Content filtering
URL
http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/ful...

47 comments:

  1. Web filtering gone Em Ay Dee (or just incompetence)

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  2. I usually find that where there's a Will, there's a way. Nice to see that they unblocked it tout de suite after reading the blog. ;) Am I correct in assuming that Titus Andronicus is also now freely accessible for all youngsters via the British Library?



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  3. The shrugs would have gotten to me, also. No way I could have let that go. Thanks for fighting the good fight!

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  4. I think we should take the BL's policy a step farther and ban all literature, regardless of violent content. After all, it's all just made-up content about non-existent persons, and a terrific time-waster.

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  5. Can I look up En Nee Nyoos, or a Pay-Ae-Pay-Er? Better not, since there could be some reference to violence there. Stick with Andy Pandy (but not Sooty and Sweep: that Sooty could be a real ****** with that wand of his. And Punch and Judy 'promotes' domestic violence, doesn't it?)

    Also mentioned recently: somebody is developing a sarcasm filter, on the lines of the idiotic 'profanity filters' that featured not a little on sites like the late Idf50. I just hope there are no satirists in Scunthorpe. To quote or paraphrase the Bard:

    Lord, what fools they mortals be!

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  6. What an extraordinary, unbelievable situation!

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  7. The venom was poured in King Hamlet's ear, not down his throat -- or is there another case of poisoning in the play?

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    Replies
    1. Quite a bit at the end. Four victims, two by drinking and two by injection.

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  8. Odd, and laughable! I'm wondering, though, when they spelled Shakespeare, did they say "Haitch"?

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  9. The British Library is essentially burning/banning books through e-censorship? Double-yuu Tee Effff!?

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  10. I think the really worrying thing in this account is the apparent indifference of the British Library staff.

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    Replies
    1. Sounds to me like the problem was just above their pay-grade.

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  11. I have a copy of The Complete works of Shake's his Spear...I'm a Subversive.

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  12. The wifi in the BL indeed doesn't have anything to do with the BL, as you'll have noticed when you used it for the first time (you have to register with some company the name of which I can't remember). If you use one of the BL's own terminals, you should be able to get anything you want. Also, while it would have taken 70 minutes to order a copy of Shakespeare, it would have taken a mere couple of minutes to find a copy somewhere in the open stacks (Humanities 1 would certainly have one). Never found the staff in the BL anything less than assiduously helpful, personally, but they are paid to look after the books, not to operate an internet cafe.

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  13. So their ISP has an overly prurient content filter. The library pays them to block inappropriate content. What's the big deal? You can still get the physical book in the library. The filter is just doing its job. No content filter is perfect. The headline is bollocks. They haven't banned Hamlet.

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    Replies
    1. Maybe you should've read the blogpost instead of just the title? :)

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  14. If they're anything like most places who have public wi-fi:

    1. They don't run their public wi-fi, they have a third party to do it for them.
    2. Their staff are not IT people, they probably mostly don't know or care how the public wi-fi works (which is why they have a third party... etc.).
    3. The third party will have some fairly standard software, probably from another third party, filtering specific words, general terms, combinations and frequency of words, etc. Filtering, with the best of intentions, is a pretty blunt instrument. It probably also uses heuristic algorithms to make it more difficult to construct 'dodgy' sites that get past the most common filters.
    4. The filters can be overridden to allow specific pages through, which is almost certainly what happened when this got brought to the attention of the right people.

    So, in summary, the British Library did not 'ban' Hamlet. Their wi-fi provider probably didn't *specifically* ban Hamlet, but did use a filter designed to catch all sorts of things, which 'caught' Hamlet.

    If there's a problem here, it's that the staff at the BL didn't understand the situation or didn't have (or didn't know) an escalation route to get it resolved.

    If I was in charge, I'd give them a leaflet they can hand out to anyone who asks, explaining how the filter works and with a URL to submit a request to get a site 'unblocked'. It wouldn't make everyone happy, but given the difficulties libraries in general are having with just getting enough funding to stay open, I'm guessing having someone on-hand full-time to immediately block or unblock sites is probably unrealistic.

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  15. There are a fair few ways of spelling the Bard's names. Perhaps the BL IT staff were only too aware of this fact? ;-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spelling_of_Shakespeare's_name

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  16. One of our set books at school was The Taming of the Shrew. There was a film adaptation but school-age children were not permitted to see it. We eventually went to a special screening which you could only attend if you wore the right school uniform.

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    1. I imagine that your classroom' edition of the play had Shakespeare's bawdiest line edited out of it. Petruchio asks Kate,

      My tongue in your tail?

      Wow. There's an attention-getter. It is well-known, however, that a child wearing a school uniform is completely protected against that sort of thing.

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  17. Wait till Shakespeare falls foul of the UK's planned great wall of pr0n. Seriously - most of it is violent with adult themes and sexual innuendo throughout.

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  18. You seem to be making Much Ado about this issue; you've turned it into a real Tempest in a teacup.

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  19. You could try this...

    http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/playmenu.php?WorkID=hamlet

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  20. I wonder if you could access Titus Andronicus. Talk about violent a play...

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  21. Would this mean the IT people had to change the properties of how Hamlet was listed in the system so that it's listed as not having violent content? Most people do know the gist of what happens in Hamlet and thus that yes, it has violent content, but maybe the filtering was in place for the benefit of a theoretical unfamiliar outsider to the work for whom the violence could be a trigger? But then a violence trigger warning would probably suffice. I'm inclined to agree with TechieBird that this isn't really the library staff's fault though.

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  22. ubercurmudgeon12 August 2013 16:50

    I used to work in the British Library's IT department, although not in a user support or networks role. This story does not surprise me in the slightest. A combination of New Labour private-sector-is-always-best dogma, and good old fashioned civil service risk aversion, means mediocrity is the most you can hope for, and stupidity like this is commonplace.

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  23. I wonder if there's an IT person with an axe to grind regarding Aaron Schwartz and MIT's reprehensible response to his arrest, and suicide.

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  24. No this isn't Much Ado About Nothing - censorship of this kind has massive unintended consequences because it is so clumsy. You end up with situations like this too: http://beusergroup.co.uk/index.php?id=958

    David 'Kim Jong-un' Cameron's filters will see this happening more and more, plus these censorship lists aren't public, so who knows what is being blocked.

    Ultimately it's futile anyway - services like http://anonymouse.org/anonwww.html will give you all the access you need and work around these filters.

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    1. I work for a university with a pretty effective (and, since I run it, I'd like to think safely and responsibly run, insofar as these things can be safely and responsibly run) web filtering system, and proxy avoidance sites were the first against the wall - otherwise, the pr0n and malware and hatespeech blocks wouldn't work.

      Before anyone calls me a tool of oppression, I've recently put in bypasses requested by researchers with academic needs to visit the KKK's website, assorted random porn sites and /b/ on 4Chan. I'm in Australia, not the UK, but when you're faced with a situation where a random colleague or student shoulder-surfing in the library or even your office can take invoke the university's sexual harassment processes over what they've seen you sit up and take notice and put in a cyber nanny.

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  25. It would be hilarious if you'd tried "Macbeth" or "Titus Adronicus" and not been blocked...

    As it is, though, it's just sad.

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    Replies
    1. *"Titus Andronicus". Stupid typo on my part.

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  26. What about Bowdler's family-friendly Shakespeare? Did the archetypal Victorian escape the censor, or is even he too violent for today's sensibilities?

    p.s. I'm logged in with OpenID (wordpress), yet your blog seems to think I'm anonymous. Whoever administers your server might want to fix that.

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  27. Well remember a guidebook-writing friend who found someone blocking Offa's Dyke!

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  28. I know web filtering quite well... I don't imagine too many people who work in filtering read this blog; but I enjoyed both of Mark's books immensely - if you are just here for poking fun at web filters, shoot on over to amazon afterward :)

    I suspect this is a case of misconfiguration. Firstly, its clear that this filter classifies this site as a number of things (does a semi-reasonable job, too?) so a change in policy to prioritise "Education & Reference" over blocking violence would fix this issue (and a bunch of others), also fixing this issue would be not blocking "violence" - though easy to see why risk averse folk would tick that blocky box, these sort of categories are generally tuned to cater for young kids, not adults doing research - so just unblocking that would have been my top choice.

    It is possible, however, that this site was simply whitelisted, storing up more catchy headlines for the future :)

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  29. Indeed, they should not block violence in an adult library. In a kid's library maybe. But then be prepared to have a lot of classical works blocked including the bible which include violence.

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  30. Similar thing happened to me last year in Lancashire. I was banned from researching the life of Sir John Tobin, former Lord Mayor of Liverpool, by Lancs CC's online filter. Tobin, a Tory, had made his money from being a letter of marque privateer. I was stopped from accessing an academic website detailing this because 'piracy' was verboten in Lancashire. Eventually, commonsense prevailed (after complaints) but blanket bans remain in place for other subjects, destroying freedom of enquiry.
    If it is legal, it should be accessible. Our rulers are creating a dystopia where censors control access to knowledge.
    Mind you, I can access MIT's Shakespeare texts here so maybe Lancs CC is more liberal than the British Library.

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  31. What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to control everybody else's life.

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  32. ...we fools of nature
    So horridly to shake our disposition
    With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
    Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?

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  33. "I was not intending to disclose some outrageous Orwellian conspiracy, merely incompetence and inertia"

    Incompetence and inertia are just as bad, maybe worse.

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  34. The shrugs are standard. People do not care. They don't. They get paid and their supervisor does not see their shrugs. Or doesn't care about them. He gives a shrug too.

    Yes. That annoys me. That people do not care. We are at a point where a handful of persons can change everything in your life for the worse and get away with it because the majority just shrugs.
    Because they don't care.

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  35. So very happy not to live in UK, NZ or one of those countries where people prefer haggis or Golf Uniform Novembers.

    You folks should make a list of URLs that are supposed to be visitable and block the remainder of that evil internet with all that bad content that's being destroying those nice pure and oh so very innocent people.

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  36. Your discovery even made it to the German news. I dont know where in the German news it originated, but I found it on this page:

    http://bit.ly/14e3HFC

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  37. This is a nice example of why default filtering doesn't work. I can't see many sites that people should be prevented visiting with Cameron's UK wide filter, other than perhaps child pornography. That's if there was any argument for a filter so wide ranging in the first place, which I don't think there is.

    The same argument could be applied to opening people's letters before their children do, to make sure they are not accidentally viewing sexual material from their father's playboy subscription.

    All the other things are questionable - the communist party website, or 4Chan would fall under 'inappropriate content' in the government's eyes I'm sure. But perhaps so would the Labour party website!

    I'm not sure which of my views the government would find objectionable, whether it's my political views, or my pornography viewing habits, but to be honest, I don't think it's any of their business. I do have things to hide frankly, which is why I have curtains in my house.

    Censorship always has unintended consequences. I am not against the idea of a library stopping people looking at porn on their computers, but that's not the same as blocking violent content, which again isn't the same as stopping anything with the word 'punch' or 'shoot' or 'jihad' in it. Essentially, one form of censorship is not the same as another, and they all ought to be debated.

    My inclination is to say, block nothing at all unless it's on a specific list. But I work in IT, and I know that what actually happens is that pages with certain words in them will be blocked - the adult sites which mostly opt in to being included on internet filtering lists already are easy to block.

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  38. Alas, that content is bard.

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  39. At least they didn't spell it with a haitch...

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