Several UK councils are now blocking access to payday loan websites in their libraries and on their public wifi networks. Some, such as Nottingham City Council, are also redirecting users trying to visit those sites to the website of the local credit union. Usually this web blocking is part of a wider anti-debt strategy designed to help local people manage their money better that might include debt advice and personal finance courses.
This is a fundamental shift in how public libraries think about providing internet access. Public libraries have always blocked some websites. They block illegal material such as child abuse images and political extremism. And they block legal pornography because viewing it could be disruptive and offensive to some patrons beyond the person who’s choosing to view it. But blocking the websites of legal businesses because the council disagrees with some of their commercial practices takes us into the realm of paternalism: restricting access to information for the individual’s supposed own good.
You don’t need to be an uncritical champion of the financial services industry to see why this is a bad idea. Payday loan companies are generally predatory bastards but that doesn’t make them unique, either within financial services or within business more generally. The list of websites that could be considered harmful to individuals in one way or another is very long indeed. Go any further down this road and not only would libraries need to devote increasing resources to identifying and blocking many more things that could be harmful to individuals but they’d also start to be seen as having a responsibility to do so. People would begin to ask – with some justification – why the council didn’t stop them taking out an expensive loan, buying a worthless product or joining a cult using a library computer.
We shouldn’t assume that blocking payday loan websites will make much difference to the number of loans people take. It may even make the problem worse. Someone researching payday loans online will find plenty of criticism and advice about them. The first result for “payday loans” in the most popular search engine is a Wikipedia article which devotes plenty of space to criticism and alternatives. But even if someone’s decided that they’d like a payday loan, researching online will at least give them the chance to shop around for a loan on the best terms, in their own time, and in a low-pressure environment. What happens if you block this kind of research task? People wanting payday loans will go straight to the high street and most likely take out a loan in the first shop they come to that offers them. They’ll be subject to high-pressure sales methods in the store and will probably get a worse deal than they would if they’d shopped around online.
This kind of web blocking causes collateral damage too. I would have found it almost impossible to write this article on an internet connection that blocked payday loan websites. Web blocking doesn’t just prevent people researching payday loans with a view to getting one, it blocks people researching the subject for any reason. Students, journalists, activists, debt advisors, politicians and even concerned friends and family members would all find their public library entirely useless for their innocuous and arguably beneficial work.
If the public library becomes less useful for a particular task then its reputation suffers. People will start to avoid it and go elsewhere if they can. And ultimately, web blocking damages the reputation of the internet itself. Imagine how you’d feel about the internet if much of the time you went online you were blocked from seeing things that you knew were there, just not there for you. The internet succeeds when it rewards people with the information they seek, not when it tells them they’re not entitled to it.
Every act of censorship in public libraries opens up a new digital divide. Traditionally we think of digital inclusion in terms of who’s online and who isn’t. But blocking websites on public computers and networks puts the users who depend on them into a lower class of online citizens: those who get less of the web than the rest of us. We can reasonably assume that the councillors and managers who devise these censorship schemes wouldn’t tolerate them for one second on their personal computers. Yet they’re quite happy to assume the role of judge, jury and executioner for the information access rights of those they purport to serve.
Not only must this kind of censorship stop, but the information access policies of these councils must be reversed. Any organisation claiming to be working to increase digital inclusion must actively oppose censorship on its own systems and elsewhere, not just refrain from it themselves. Otherwise, we’ll be getting more and more people online only for them to find that there’s less and less for them when they get there. We want people who are marginalised to learn that the internet is a place of freedom, not one bound with the same kind of petty restrictions and privations they face elsewhere. Most of all, we’d like everyone to learn by experience that equality is possible online today, even if it’s harder to achieve everywhere else.
What do you think: Should public libraries block payday loan websites?