Should public libraries block payday loan websites?

Adrian Short's picture

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?

 

Comments

public facilities,in this case, libraries should deny access to payday loan companies. As a an office of the local government (Libraries are a public used facility but are run by local councils) then such action would be or could be seen as the local authority being generous in their duty of care for the local citizen. Protecting the vulnerable and despreate from accessing the sites is like giving someone a flu jab to stop any infections getting hold of theior sytem and incapacitating them, as debt incapacitates most if not all who succumb to it.. Not stae control or parenting just simplecommon sense.. protect the innocents, there is no secret agenda, unless you can enlighten me?
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Surely that should be dealt with through regulation of the industry though? If there is a need to protect vulnerable people from these lenders why not protect them regardless of how they access the internet. Why should a local library suddenly take on an additional duty of care, beyond what the government is willing to? More to the point, blocking the sites doesn't stop people taking out a loan, but it does stop people being able to research what is out there, I'm betting that it doesn't block them all either but just the well known ones so it might even drive people toward smaller, more expensive and dubious lenders.

I don't think we need to protect people from themselves to this degree, it makes more sense to have a sensible level of protection through regulation of financial services. I don't think anyone is suggesting a 'secret agenda' but rather that its inappropriate to treat library users like leppers and block access to legitimate sites, even if I don't think payday lenders are a good idea. More to the point, what if someone needs to use a library internet connection to pay off a loan they have already taken out? Are they also being protected when they get stiffed with a late payment fee?

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Computers in the Library of Birmingham block access to the Wikipedia article "Knife". They do, though provide books on knives, and make knives available for pub use in their cafe.
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Is it access to sites or search terms they are blocking? If it is searches, then I agree. If it is the actual sites, as the above article claims, then I call weasel words. There is no part of this article that would be "impossible to write" without visiting, say for example, Wronga. And how would blocking access to their site prevent the wiki article coming up top on a Google (there I said it for you!) search?
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