Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shooting for the Big Time

This is an essay on Web-content filtering software that concerned people have installed on public computers to spare others exposure to things that the filterers think are bad for them. I wrote it in November 2010 as my final paper for Florida State University's Foundations of the Information Professions graduate course. One of the other students in the course garnered attention -- I think it was an academic journal -- after he posted his final paper on his blog, so here's hoping...

Opposition to access to Web sites that are considered harmful to youth, those that have typically contained pornographic or depicted violence, has led to installation of Web browser filters on computer terminals at a great many libraries. The issue reached a head in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires libraries that wish to receive federal government funding for electronics such as computers to install filters.

In its opinion, the court noted that libraries can disable filters at an adult’s request. I am concerned that a local resident or activist group could issue an ultimatum that a library either implement a policy of never disabling filters, under any circumstances, or lose locally based funding.

I have concluded that the use of filters is ineffective and unethical. To defend my library’s filtering policy, I would:

  • Note Radom’s (2007, p. 12) argument that filters can harm a child’s intellectual development. ``How can information literacy be taught when critical perspectives are blocked?’’ she asks. To the retort that filters don’t block ``critical perspectives,’’ only sex and violence, I would reply that filters are notorious for blocking material that can’t reasonably be considered controversial. Jaeger, Bertot, McClure and Langa (2006, p. 133) state that filters have blocked much health information. ``Filters can block… up to 63% of general health sites and up to 91% of sites related to sexual health – when set to block sexually related materials.’’
  • Point out that filters under-block the content that is considered objectionable. (Rubin, p. 385)
  • Dispute the belief that filters allow ``local control’’ over Web access. This is because a) filtering software is proprietary, and b) ``locals’’ have little hope of knowing the ulterior motives of filter software makers. The American Library Association is concerned that ``…producers do not identify what sites are blocked, (and) that the criteria used to block sites are poorly defined...’’ (Rubin, p. 396). Religious agendas have guided the construction of some filters (cf. Radom, 2007). Filters have appealed to authoritarian regimes. Radom (2007, p. 9) reports that the OpenNet Initiative found that the Iranian government uses SmartFilter, made by Secure Computing. Travis (2003, p. 94 ) notes that WebSENSE sold systems to the government of Saudi Arabia.
  • I would demonstrate the flaws of filters in action by demonstrating a filter blocking a site that cannot reasonably be considered controversial. Then I would find sites that contain violence or nudity and that are not blocked by the same filter. I would give the public the option of seeing those sites with the filter on.

In May 2007 public libraries in Illinois halted Internet access, and others set their filters at the highest levels, to protest state legislation that would have required filters on all computers and that adults accompany minors who want filters be disabled. (Oleck 2007 p. 20)

These methods rely on making a statement about the logical extremes of filtering: For some, it allows a trickle of Web content; for others, none.

I sympathize with those methods in that they use a demonstration to make a statement. The problem is that their result is restriction of access.

Filtering violates the soundness of the American Library Association (ALA) Library Bill of Rights clause that states: ``Materials shall not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.’’ One cannot shut down terminals or crank up filters in response to political pressure and be guided by the Library Bill of Rights at the same time. I would consider abrogation of the Library Bill of Rights in this case to be abandonment of it. A librarian who decides to abandon the Library Bill of Rights would have to ask him- or herself if principled librarianship can be performed in the absence of a comprehensive ethical code. If not, the Library Bill of Rights would have to be replaced with a code that would allow restricting access in protest. Such a code would be embraced by those who esteem deliberation beneath knee-jerk impulse and willy-nilly action.

My method of explaining and demonstrating the inefficacy of filters would not change the minds of many hard-core filtering proponents. I would have faith, however, that it would win over a critical number of community members who had been undecided. I would have faith that my method would raise enough political support to maintain library funds.

On the other hand, the decision to restrict access abandons faith that a majority of the electorate will do the right thing, and replaces it with the actions of a few who presume to know the right thing to do. It threatens the complexity and quantity of political discourse. As the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual notes, freedom of expression requires a complementary freedom to read, hear or view that which is freely expressed. Libraries are ``fundamental to the informed debate demanded by the Constitution’’ the ALA says. ``…Those libraries with a mission that includes service to minors should make available a full range of information necessary for young people to become thinking adults and part of the informed electorate envisioned in the Constitution.’’ (ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual).

Without freedom to know what has been expressed, freedom of expression is absurd.

Restricting Web access in protest incorporates the mindset of censors. Censors have no faith that a child’s family and neighbors could help a child work through the confusion or the pain he or she feels after encountering a difficult concept, fact, image or word. Doing so, however, is part of helping a kid grow up. The censor assumes that people should grow up only under the censor’s terms, and to affect this they will employ a technology about whose design and origin they may know very little.


American Library Association Library Bill of Rights Accessed Nov. 8, 2010.

American Library Association. Questions and answers: access to digital information, services, and networks. An interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Supplement to ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual, 8th ed. Accessed Nov. 21, 2010

Bissonnette, Susan Travis (2003). Smothering free speech. Journal of Library Administration, 39(2), 87-102

Jaeger, Paul T., John Carlos Bertot, Charles R. McClure & Leslie A. Langa (2006). The policy implications of Internet connectivity in public libraries. Government Information Quarterly, 23, 123-141.

Oleck, Joan (2007). IL libraries shut internet service in protest. School Library Journal, 53(6), June 2007, 20

Radom, Rachel (2007). Internet filtering companies with religious affiliations. Library and Information Science Research Electronic Journal, 17(2) September 2007 p. 1-19

Rubin, Richard E. Foundations of Library and Information Science. New York: Neal- Schuman Publishers, 2010