Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Internet Filters For Kids

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. It'll fail if you try to deny the plain fact that limiting what adults can find on the internet is censorship.

  5. It'll fail if you try to treat a 17-year-old computer user the same as a 7-year-old computer user.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.


  1. I deleted and re-added this post to fix some formatting issues. Sorry of that deleted any comments. I think at least one disappeared.

  2. Revealing your identity would help make your blog posts more credible.

    Similarly, not propagandizing would also make you more credible. For example, it is pure propaganda to say filtering for adults is censorship. The truth is that it depends. The source of that truth is the US Supreme Court in US v. ALA.

    Along comes "Non-Censor" who says, "the plain fact [is] that limiting what adults can find on the internet is censorship." Whom to believe--Non Censor or the US Supreme Court. That's a tough one.

    Really, I encourage you to write, but I have told you about US v. ALA before and yet here you are again misleading your readers. Feel free to say whatever you like, but if you continue to ignore legal precedent to make false claims of "censorship," no one will take you seriously.

    I'll go a step further. If you amend your blog post to remove the erroneous information, I'll delete this comment.

  3. I will not alter my post to suit you, and I would prefer you left your comment here, since it reveals two things: 1) you do not comprehend what censorship is and is not, and 2) you still have not read the US vs. ALA decision you continue to cite.

    If you prevent adults from accessing information on the web because of something in the content of that information, that's censorship. That's the basic definition of the term. You might want to consult a dictionary of the English language.

    The court decision you cite says nothing that alters the above. In fact, the Supreme court was careful in this decision to stress that they were focussed on protecting children and that it was imporant for adults to be able to bypass those restrictions. READ IT!

  4. Safe libraries- the readers of this blog should read US v. ALA in it's entirety in order to understand the complete ruling. Similarly, they should read the books on the WBCFSL list completely before making a judgement.
    Non-Censor, thanks for doing this work. It helps to have this information.

  5. There's Dan again. Always trying to twist, incite, and push his agenda. Why is it, Dan, that you constantly cite the same old, same old? I'm sure in your research you found case law that shows Maziarka's attempt to censor wouldn't stand up in court. And yes, Dan, it was an attempt to censor - read her complaint from the very beginning. The only reason it changed over time was because she had people whispering in her ear (her "angel" perhaps) telling her she needed to broaden the scope in order to even stand a chance. And to quote your repeated piece from US vs. ALA - (they) stifle speech and force THEIR (emphasis added) moral world-view on others.

  6. Just to avoid confusion, I point out that the quote offered above by "SafeLibraries" above is NOT part of the Supreme Court decision mentioned in the same comment (SafeLibraries did set the quote up as a link to the original source).

    The quote comes from a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Dan Gerstein, titled "Why the Democrats are Losing the Culture Wars."

    The quote is illogical on its face, saying essentially that the least censorious are the most censorious.

  7. BTW: The words 'censor' and 'censorhip' do not appear in the majority decision in US v. ALA. They do, however, appear in the dissenting opinion written by Justices Souter and Ginsburg. Their position didn't win, but if we're going to engage in snippet quote wars:

    " The question for me, then, is whether a local library could itself constitutionally impose these restrictions on the content otherwise available to an adult patron through an Internet connection, at a library terminal provided for public use. The answer is no. A library that chose to block an adult's Internet access to material harmful to children (and whatever else the undiscriminating filter might interrupt) would be imposing a content-based restriction on communication of material in the library's control that an adult could otherwise lawfully see. This would simply be censorship. True, the censorship would not necessarily extend to every adult, for an intending Internet user might convince a librarian that he was a true researcher or had a "lawful purpose" to obtain everything the library's terminal could provide. But as to those who did not qualify for discretionary unblocking, the censorship would be complete and, like all censorship by an agency of the Government, presumptively invalid owing to strict scrutiny in implementing the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. "The policy of the First Amendment favors dissemination of information and opinion, and the guarantees of freedom of speech and press were not designed to prevent the censorship of the press merely, but any action of the government by means of which it might prevent such free and general discussion of public matters as seems absolutely essential." Bigelow v. Virginia, 421 U. S. 809, 829 (1975) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted)."

  8. Nice info. Thank you.
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