There as a clear need for British libraries to implement web filtering solutions to restrict the content that can be accessed through library computers. However, as has been recently discovered, web filter implementation errors can all too easily result in important and valuable Internet content being blocked.

Web filter implementation errors damage public access to content sought by vulnerable users

Give a schoolboy a dictionary and it will not be long before the exact meaning of every cuss word will have been looked up. Provide totally free access to the Internet without the watchful eye of parents and it will not be long before access is used to access pornography and other objectionable content.

The anonymity afforded by library computers allows objectionable content to be accessed, such as pornography, ISIS propaganda, and other web content and imagery that has potential to cause harm. Libraries are an extremely valuable resource, but the type of information that can be accessed does need to be controlled, according to some local authorities at least.

The implementation of a web filtering solution was deemed to be an appropriate safeguard to prevent unsavory content from being accessed on library computers in Britain. The problem with using a web filter is how to prevent potentially damaging content from being accessed, while ensuring that those filters do not block access to acceptable content, especially content that many people may choose to access quite legitimately in a library. Content about sexual health for example.

Many vulnerable individuals may not be able to access sexual health information at home. The sites that are accessed may be seen by family members for example. A teenager may want information about contraception, abortion, or sexually transmitted diseases, yet be unable to search for the information they need at home. They may want to access resources produced for the LGBT community. A library is an ideal place for this important information to be obtained. Information that may prevent these individuals from coming to harm.

Data recently released by the Radical Librarians Collective indicates that web filter implementation errors have resulted in much of this important content being blocked, even though this is exactly the sort of content that libraries exist to provide. The problem is not the use of web filters, but web filter implementation errors and a lack of intelligent oversight, according to the collective.

Web filtering policies should be developed to allow anonymous unblocking of legitimate websites

Library officials have implemented web filtering solutions, but have done so with a top-down filtering policy. This has resulted in valuable and important content being blocked by the filters. The data came from a study of over 200 local authorities and showed content that should be permitted under acceptable use policies was being blocked.

If solutions are used to filter the Internet there will naturally be some websites that are accidentally blocked, just as some sites containing objectionable content may still be accessible. It may not be a case of web filter implementation errors being made. A web filter does require some fine-tuning and a few false positives and false negatives are to be expected. The problem in Britain appears to involve more than just a few websites, indicating web filer implementation errors have been made.

Another problem is that individuals trying to access blocked content do not request libraries to unblock websites out of embarrassment or fear.

When a web filter is used, it is vital that policies are developed to permit users to request access to a particular website if it can be legitimately viewed under the library’s allowable usage policy. However, due to the sensitive nature of some information, sexual health matters for instance, users should be able to make that request without fear of repercussions. Allowing requests to be submitted anonymously could help in this regard.