Friday, November 27, 2009

SafeLibraries Shows Us Again Why His Information Cannot Be Trusted

In today's post, SafeLibraries chides a Vermont library for the role he claims it played in enabling a convicted sex offender to violate the terms of his probation.  SafeLibraries cites a somewhat vague news article from the Brattleboro Reformer, which describes how the parolee used a library computer to chat with individuals by means of Yahoo Messenger, and how at least one of his chat partners supplied him with some kind of pornography.  The parolee was arrested for violating the terms of his probation.  It is not clear whether or not a crime was committed (other crimes described in the article took place in the past, and the degree to which they had anything -- or nothing -- to do with any library anywhere is not described).

Somehow, SafeLibraries blames the library and the American Library Association, at least in part.  He alleges that "the anything-goes policy of the ALA," created a situation in which the "library is partially at fault for refusing to take action that may have prevented his behavior in the first place."  

But what policy, what filters, what library action would have prevented the parolee's misuse of the computer?  The news article nowhere states that the man visited any pornographic website that would have been blocked by filters. It doesn't indicate that he visited any pornography sites at all.  The article states only that he was engaged in private online chats with like-minded individuals, apparently adults.  Even libraries that implement internet filters usually permit this type of real-time communication. Few internet filters, if any, would trap sending a pornographic image by this means, any more than such programs could determine whether or not a photograph attached to an email message were pornographic (remember that filters work mostly by identifying words and text patterns, and rarely by any analysis of what a photographic image is about).

The fact is that the library's internet use policy looks pretty good.  It expressly prohibits using library computers to view "pornography," a much broader class of material than the more legalistic "obscenity." The library could implement filters, but it doesn't appear that any such filter would have prevented the kind of communication that this parolee engaged in.  Violation of library policy results in the the revocation of a patron's internet privileges, or even general library privileges.  What else does SafeLibraries expect the library to do?  Anything beyond this is the purview of the police department and district attorney's office, not the library.

More than anything else, it is this inability to maintain a balanced perspective that makes SafeLibraries' spin on things so untrustworthy.  He is obsessed with assassinating the character of the American Library Association, and cannot resist spinning a situation that has nothing to do with the ALA, and hardly has anything to do with any library at all, into a deliberately anti-social act by that institution.

One sentence in SafeLibraries' post reveals not only a deep misunderstanding of how the legal system works, but also a large does of paranoia.  Since the sentence speaks volumes, I'll let it speak for itself.
I suggest the parole board consider the library to be under the control of a foreign entity, the ALA, and that control made it an "attractive nuisance" that the perp could not resist and that endangers children.


  1. How on earth was the library supposed to know he was violating his parole agreement? It's not like they have a device attached to them that starts beeping when they do.

    So really, he could have walked into a corner store and bought a copy of Playboy and still would have been violating his agreement. The library and the ALA are completely irrelevant to this situation. Sheesh.

  2. The question is what access really belongs in a public library. Should there be totally different standards for online usage and regular library activity? Obviously people do not come to libraries to "chat" with friends offline. Should that be a protected activity.

    Also, the Safe Eyes filter can block or monitor IM chats, so a library could block that activity if they so chose, or even create one account where IM chats are monitored and another where IM chats are blocked, and make whether or not to allow chatting a judgement call by the librarian, where users would need permission to chat.

    I think Libraries should allow online use that is consistent with the prime directive of the library, which is to provide access to material of reasonable educational or entertainment value to the public. I think if you wouldn't put it on the shelves, it shouldn't be allowed on the computer.

  3. Anonymous, you are quite right that libraries can, if they choose, limit the kinds of activities patrons use library computers for. That would be an elegant solution: the library could simply restrict internet access to a small number of sites the library pre-approves for research and recreational purposes. As long as the library clearly states that they do not provide general internet access to patrons, they can probably do this legally.

    However, few libraries make that choice. Most see providing general internet access as part of their basic mission. That includes allowing chat, email, and many other kinds of services, in addition to those that support "research."

    You are also right that SOME filters can block IM chat content, but that is based on keywords or text patterns, not on image contents. I know of no product that can reliably determine whether or not the contents of an image file are obscene or pornographic, without relying on file names, key words, or other text voluntarily supplied by the producer or sender of that image. It is not realistic to expect that any such software exists, since people can't agree with each other what is or is not pornographic, let alone program a computer to identify what humans can't clearly define.

    Not to mention that many libraries now allow patron's own laptops to connect to the internet via the library's wireless network, and few of those personal laptops have internet content filters on them.

    To put it simply, the claim that internet filters can prevent pornographic images from reaching a library patron is grossly exaggerated.

    Your last sentence, I think, misunderstands the problem. To say "if you wouldn't put in on the shelves, it shouldn't be allowed on the computer," implies that filters make computers just as restrictive of internet materials as library selection policies are for books. This is not the case. Internet filters impose much greater restrictions on internet materials than libraries usually impose on books. This is so because filters are purposefully designed to filter out material that many parents would consider "inappropriate" for children, and that is very big category, going far beyond what is obscene for adults or obscene -- in legal terms -- for minors.

    Since the commercially available filtering products were designed with parents in mind, rather than the First Amendment, these filters must, inevitably, block legitimate access. The only way the whole filtering proposal stays legal at all is if adults have the ability to unblock the library computers they're using. Of course, a deactivated filter doesn't block porn, or anything else.

    Which brings me back tot he purpose of my original post, which was to show how SafeLibraries was making an unrealistic demand that libraries somehow block the unblockable, or control the uncontrollable. It wasn't even clear -- from the news coverage of the situation -- that the patron committed any crime at the library. The only thing that was clear was that the patron had violated the terms of his probation. The terms of his probation are restrictions on Free Speech that would never be allowed on anyone without a criminal conviction. Clearly it is not the job of the library to know about the terms of any patron's probation, or to enforce restrictions so unusual.

  4. That SafeLibraries guy is a quack. Wish I could see him speak in public, so I could engage and expose him as a fraud.