Tomorrow is 404 Day, an effort from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to raise awareness of online censorship in libraries and public schools. They’re running an online info session today at noon, PST, and they’ve reached out to librarians and information professionals to share experiences with online censorship.
My encounters with 404 pages in libraries have mostly stemmed from my academic rather than librarian life. While in graduate school, I undertook a project looking at practices of secrecy in the extreme body modification community. I wanted to know how the community circulated information about illegal and quasi-legal procedures among insiders, without exposing the same information to outsiders and the authorities. As a researcher, getting a 404 message (which happened mostly when trying to access a social network platform geared specifically to the body modification community) was mostly exasperating, but it also gave me pause for other contexts of looking up this type of information. As a teenager, body modification fascinated me, and I spent many hours online researching procedures related to piercings, tattoos, scarification and suspension. Eventually, I came to feel very much a part of the body modification community, and the internet was vital to that happening. When I imagine what would have happened if I’d been confronted with 404 pages early on in those searches, it’s possible that my body would look very different, and so would my early twenties – in both cases, I believe, for the worse. My experiences were by no means singular; while conducting research on EBM, I encountered many folks who were still struggling to locate information about procedures they wanted done, to get answers to questions about health and well being, to find a community that wouldn’t find their interests weird or freakish. EBM is just one example of a stigmatized topic that provokes censorship at the cost of denying people information that can be deeply tied to their physical, mental and social well-being.
I’m grateful to EFF for drawing attention to 404s and monitoring policies, and am happy to join the array of information activists speaking out against censorship in public libraries and schools.