Friday, July 24, 2009

Internet Access from Libraries

Internet access from library computers has been a source of contention across the country. The issue is not just one of defining what is or is not appropriate use of public computers -- quite a complicated matter in its own right -- but also one of technical and practical details. A few of these need to be pointed out here.

Making a computer "kid safe" is a matter of restricting which of the billions of web pages and ever-changing content a computer can see. This is a massive undertaking, and the only way a library can even begin to implement such a plan is to subscribe to a filtering service. This requires an ongoing budget allocation. That is, it costs money.

While there are a variety of filtering services using different techniques, it is critical to understand that none of them are perfect. All of them have the effect of limiting access to legitimate websites. While this may be fine for young children, for adults this is double censorship: it restricts the free speech of web content providers, and restricts the equal access of library patrons. The practical result is that the library can NOT apply the filters to all computers. This gets complicated and expensive. There must be separate computers for children and adults, and library staff must monitor who is using which machines. Computers might even have to be in separate areas, lest a child see a computer screen over the shoulder of an adult patron.

Even with filters, the parents of children using the protected systems probably still have to sign a waiver holding the library blameless for what the child sees or does online. This is necessary because the provider of the filtering service might sooner or later make a mistake, and because a patron might figure out how to hack around the filters on a particular computer. The library won't want to be liable for technical problems beyond their control.


  1. Welcome to the blogging world.

    Much of what you have said is largely incorrect, especially about about "censorship." See US v. ALA, for example.

    This may also be of interest: "Library Director Extols Internet Filtering; Porn Should Be Excluded From Libraries; Dynamite Reading For Library Directors, Trustees and Patrons."

  2. I am aware of the US vs. ALA decision, which you seem not to comprehend. This decision is about strings attached to the acceptance of specific federal funds, and does not establish a general legal principle for censorshp. Yes, even some library directors support the idea of filtering, but the practical (not legal) problems I outline here are very real.

  3. Then you are using the wrong filters or not managing them effectively.

    And your efforts to minimize the US Supreme Court case against the ALA is notable when one considers the weight your arguments hold.

    What is also notable is that you editted your blog post to remove the erroneous references to "censorship" which I had quoted since you used it. I think that proves my point that it is not censorship to properly use Internet filters in public libraries and you know it.

    This is also relevant:

    Sensible Censorship: Surfing for Porn Shouldn't Be a Public Library Service

    by Elizabeth Hovde, Oregonian columnist

    Saturday July 11, 2009, 6:29 AM

    Libraries can't and don't house every book ever written or every magazine in circulation. And library employees are continually making decisions about what goes on the shelf and what gets left out of a given collection. Rarely are they criticized for what is left behind, accused of censorship or sued.

    But when libraries don't supply unfiltered Internet access to the masses (or even to children), the American Civil Liberties Union and others go after the taxpayer-funded institutions, treating them as if library board members were standing in the parking lot burning every copy of "Pride and Prejudice" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

    The North Central Regional Library District in Washington state is one library district that has decided it isn't a library's job to peddle Net porn and that filtering software for library computers can help create a more family-friendly library experience. For that reasonable stance, the Wenatchee-based district has been sued. Late last month, the case finally made it all the way to the Washington state Supreme Court. And now the court will decide whether public libraries can refuse to disable library Internet filters for adults who want access to blocked content.

    The ACLU of Washington is representing three library users and a pro-gun foundation in the case. The organization found the right test cases. The three library patrons the ACLU is representing were trying to access information that would upset no one. The patrons include a woman who was doing research on tobacco use by youth, a photographer who was blocked from using YouTube and a man who was unable to access his blog, as well as information related to gun use by hunters.

    It's easier to gather sympathy for ACLU's cause when a library policy hinders the Internet searches of people seeking benign information. It's much harder to do so for middle-aged guys who go to the library to look at pornography in a building frequented by children.

    That's what filtering policies are all about, of course. They are an attempt to keep: libraries safe for all patrons and library workers; children away from materials they can't legally buy in a store; and taxpayers from having to finance someone's porn habits.

    Instead of imagining the limited Internet searches of students and hunters, picture the 25-year-old man accused of downloading illegal child pornography at the Lake Oswego Public Library last October or the Milwaukie man who was arrested for repeatedly downloading child pornography from a public computer in Milwaukie's Ledding Library last fall.

    .... {continued...}

  4. {continuing....}

    Like a lot of libraries, the Lake Oswego Public Library offers patrons the option of filtered or unfiltered Net access and doesn't monitor the use of legal materials and information. But child pornography is not legal and violates both libraries' policies.

    It should make all of us uncomfortable that pedophiles have access to pornography in public places where children are present. And there are many examples across the nation of library patrons who've left pornographic images where minors or librarians can come across them. When the fight over Internet filtering on library computers was going on in Seattle in the 1990s, the crusade for filtered Net access was led, in part, by a well-spoken librarian who didn't feel comfortable helping men access pornography or being exposed to the peep shows.

    Concern for librarians and children led the federal government to tie some federal dollars for library Internet access to a requirement that libraries have the ability to block minors from pornography and other potentially harmful sites. The ACLU opposed even this modest move, calling it a threat to free speech and saying parents, not libraries, should control what kids view.

    But some library districts listened to common sense and constituents instead of the ACLU. And like North Central Regional Library District, they chose to filter out smut not only for minors, but for adults, too. Sometimes, an unintended consequence resulted: Other content was blocked along with offensive materials -- leading to the current case before the Washington state Supreme Court.

    I hope the library district wins, despite the valid searches for YouTube, gun use and teen smoking habits. Libraries are financed by taxpayers and offer a lot of information to the public. But they don't offer every piece of information available and shouldn't have to.

    Limiting what's on the shelves -- or accessible on a public computer -- is not censorship. It's discretion. And pornography and other materials blocked by some filtering programs are still widely available for personal use and purchase elsewhere.

    Elizabeth Hovde writes a Sunday column for The Oregonian and also posts during the week on Reach her at

  5. In the future, please post a link to such lengthy quotations, rather than loading all the text into a comment to a blog. That will work better for everyone.

    I'm not sure what edit you think I made in the post, but it didnt happen. And I'm not minimizing the USA v ALA decision. You might want to read it carefully yourself instead of relying on summaries in church bulletins for your information.

    A persistent and bold-faced lie told and retold by censorship proponents, and now retold by you, is that internet filters can a) block everything inappropriate for children, and at the same time b) allow access to every legitimate site. This is not a question of having the right filter or managing it correctly. The filter you imagine does not exist. Think! It doesn't even make sense to suppose such a thing would exist, since people can't agree with each other about what is or isn't obscene or legitimate. If people can't define something very specifically and unambiguously, they cannot tell a computer how to do it for them.

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