It might surprise some readers of this blog that I support Internet Filters on library computers that are used by children. For the record, I think they're a great idea. I think they're technically feasible, legally supportable, and beneficial to children. What I object to is the shoot-from-hip, one-size-fits-all, quick-fix rhetoric that tries to deny the complexities inherent in the issue.
Internet Filters for children are doable, but not simple. You have to be smart about it. If you're not, the implementation will fail, and children will not be protected. I've identified some of the most likely stumbling blocks below.
- It'll fail if you reduce the problem to one of pornography, as much of the debate rhetoric tends to do. Pornography is only a small part of the problem, and there'd be far less debate if that's all it was about. Internet filters are about preventing contact with online predators, preventing children from revealing personal information to strangers, and providing age-appropriate materials, among other things.
- It'll fail if you think it's free. Implementing filters will cost time and tax dollars, both for the initial set up and on an ongoing basis. This has to be planned for, budgeted, and controlled.
- It'll fail if you believe there is such a thing as a perfect filter that can block inappropriate material for children and at the same time allow adults to have access to all legitimate websites. No such filter exists, nor is it logical to expect that it could: people can't agree with each other about what's appropriate or objectionable, let alone program a computer to make the distinction for them.
- It'll fail if you try to deny the plain fact that limiting what adults can find on the internet is censorship.
- It'll fail if you try to treat a 17-year-old computer user the same as a 7-year-old computer user.
- It'll fail if you create a huge administrative headache for library staff by requiring constant intervention and supervision, or if you put library staff in the position of having to decide which sites are objectionable or legitimate.
- It'll fail if you create a situation where the library/city/county gets sued and looses, forcing the entire project back to square one and leaving the taxpayer on the hook for the legal bills. I would be one of the first to encourage such a suit if the implementation of filters went even an inch too far in censoring internet access for adults.
- It'll fail if you let political hacks hijack a legitimate interest in children's safety and turn it into an attempt to control public discourse.
- And as if all that weren't enough, the project will fail if you implement a filtering scheme that is too weak or too easily bypassed to be effective.
In spite of the above, and other potential problems, I think internet filters are feasible. We just need to have realistic expectations and tangible goals.
One of the simplest, though not necessarily the cheapest, things that can be done is to set up a separate set of computers, reserved for use by younger children and physically separated from the computers used by adults. You can then put whatever filters you want on the kids' computers without infringing upon the right of adult users to make their own decisions about what is appropriate for them.
I make this suggestion because people rarely stop to think about what will happen if adult and child computer users are mingled, even if all the computers are filtered. Inevitably, the time will come when a parent will notice that his or her child is sitting next to an adult who is viewing material that the parent doesn't want the child to see. The adult computer user won't be doing anything wrong. The material accessed will be perfectly legal and will pass easily through any filters appropriate for adults. But the parent will still see something objectionable in the presence of children. The adult user could be:
- Doing research in art history that involves looking at images of museum pieces such as Michelangelo's David or other nude figures.
- Looking at the results of an archaeological dig that unearthed phallus-shaped pottery (I'm not making this up, it happens).
- Reading a coroner's report about an unusually gruesome murder.
- Reading Hitler's Mein Kampf or Marx's Communist Manifesto.
- Reading material about one or another religious sect, or about atheism.
Since what is objectionable is a matter of personal opinion, the list is potentially endless. The point here is that no amount of filtering will make everybody happy, and that something as simple as setting up a Kid's Computing area can go a long way to reducing conflict. I didn't say it was perfect. There are still issues about the maximum age of patrons on the kids' computers, the minimum age for using the adults' computers, parental permission, and the like. I don't think this is the entire solution. But I do think it would help.