The harm of censorship is worse than the harm of debt? A response to: Should public libraries block payday loan websites?

On his blog, Adrian Short makes several arguments against internet “censorship” by Councils who block access to payday loan sites on library computers.  Here is the link.

Should public libraries block payday loan websites?

He says that blocking access to a payday website is censorship and it is a bad thing. Even though he accepts that such blocking (he never clarifies the difference between blocking and censorship nor does he define censorship) may be part of an anti-debt strategy, which seems to suggest that Mr. Short accepts that an anti-debt strategy is a good thing. However, that raises a question he never addresses even though it is implicit in the issue: Which is better, to have an anti-debt strategy that is supported by blocking some payday sites, or to have an anti-debt strategy that does not block payday sites. It would appear it is better that the vulnerable public remain in debt just so long as they have access to the payday loan sites, which are contributing to their debt. It would appear that the harm from blocking a website is worse than the harm of being in debt.

He then says that this is a fundamental shift in how public libraries think about providing internet access.  Strangely, though he goes on to explain that they have always blocked access to some websites, so that would suggest that it cannot be a fundamental shift so much as a widening of an existing and acceptable approach by the Council. He never explores why the Council and the libraries did not see a need to block these sites 5 or 10 years ago, which suggests that something has changed regarding payday loan companies, their marketing,  and the demands on the Council to take such measures as part of its anti-debt strategy. He does not ask why the Council has an anti-debt strategy nor why it saw a need to limit such access, he is only concerned with access not whether the access may harm people.

Mr. Short continues by suggesting that such an approach is paternalistic. Again, we are left uncertain what that means, he does not define paternalism,  and whether the issue he is addressing or concerned about is paternalism, blocking, or censorship or all three. Furthermore, Mr. Short seems to have forgotten, or rather he may have overlooked, that all politics aims at some good and all governments act in some way to benefit their citizens or subjects and reduce what may harm them. Perhaps he believes, then, by extension that all politics is paternalistic. If this is the case, he seems to be suggesting a system of anarchy in which we are ok to make a choice so long as it is not paternalistic. Yet, he seems to offer no alternative as to how a council, a democratically mandated local government, would act on its mandate if it could not act on the public’s good. Should it act to harm the public? We now enter a strange world it seems because if we take Mr. Short at his word, he would rather have the government do nothing so that the public are harmed or even take actions that harm the public just so long as it did not appear paternalistic as either option is not as bad as blocking a payday loan site.

He then admits that payday companies are bad, he calls them “generally predatory bastards”, although he believes that they should be allowed to publish whatever they want. Strangely he seems unaware that neither the council nor the libraries want to stop the payday companies from broadcasting their messages. I found no evidence, nor has Mr. Short asserted this, that the Council or the libraries want to stop the payday companies from promoting their business through the internet. Instead, they just want to keep them from appearing on Council hosted library browsers. One would expect that the Council would have the right, as given to it by the public’s democratic mandate, to organise its services and determine access to its services according to the law and its mandate, but Mr. Short does not appear to accept that possibility or at least he does not explore it.

He then suggests that the Council would have to block any and all sites that were harmful to its citizens. Strangely, he fails to realize that this is what the council does in other areas and is part of its ethos and its responsibility as an organisation. Trading standards works constantly to protect the public from fraudulent or dangerous traders or practices such as food that is incorrectly labelled. The building enforcement officers review buildings to ensure compliance with building regulations to make sure that substandard work is prevented or removed so that the public can be protected. I suppose this is a council being paternalistic to make sure the food is safe and buildings are safe.

We then start to see the issue that is emerging. Mr. Short believes that the Council’s actions are a sign of wide scale blocking and the potential collateral damage from it even though he does not explore the collateral damage from debt. In reality, he seems to have forgotten or overlooked, which is strange given his skill and experience with the web, that Google and most web search systems already use algorithms and search engine optimisation tools to decide which sites will be returned on a search. Thus, it is not so much the Council is blocking the site, which a user may wish to use and know about but cannot access, but that the whole internet is designed in such a way as that occurs by its default. Different search engines will provide different results depending on the location and most importantly the users profiles all of this is done without most users knowing nor with any democratic mandate. One would take it that his silence on this matter seems to suggest that he approves of such undemocratic methods yet seems aggrieved by a democratically mandated public body acting in the best interests of its voters.

He then seems to suggest that all research and any research on the web could or would be block by the site as no one will have access to payday websites where they wish to do their research. The problem is though that most students will have access through their own institutions which may allow access or through their own private browsing systems and such research can still be done in person, by telephone, or even through the post. In a pinch they may have to buy a magazine that specializes in comparing such companies or go to an advice bureau which could provide them information on these companies. Perhaps if the blocking leads them to see that the web is not the only method for obtaining information it would be a good thing, thus we see that the blocking rather than inhibiting research and academic freedom, is encouraging it. Is Mr. Short against such things that would enhance people’s ability to research or would he rather they remained dependent upon the web?

Strangely he is concerned about the reputation of the library because people will go elsewhere.  He also worries that the web’s reputation will be ruined by such action. Yet, he does not accept that payday loans and aggressive business practices promoted through the web are a problem or hurt the web’s reputation. It is only a problem when a democratically mandated organisation seeks to reduce the harm from the web on its residents.

We then start to see a larger issue emerge; the Council’s actions are creating a digital divide. We now must save people from a digital divide but not act to stop them from going into debt. The harm we must act to stop is a digital divide but the harm we must allow is for people to fall into debt and to be marketed by payday loans through Council websites *even if the Council has a democratic mandate to help its citizens who are in debt* because their digital divide will be worse for them.

What we realize is that the issue for Mr. Short is that the public must be protected from the harm of censorship and the digital divide but not be protected from the potential harm of debt. Why the intangible is worse than the tangible I am not sure, but Mr. Short is certain he knows which is worse for the public, which does sound a bit paternalistic, but then it is to prevent the harm of censorship so it must be a good thing.


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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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