08 March, 2009

The ethical considerations around filtering of internet content in public libraries

I've been challenged to try to write an amusing blog on this topic. I am not sure I can meet that challenge, but can certainly write a blog, albeit not amusing, on the subject.

I have not been to a public library (other than the UW Health Sciences Library, which could scarcely be called a "Library"), to the best of my knowledge, since the Spring of 2004. The last time I went to a public city or town library was to attend a political focus group that was being hosted by PBS at Seattle Public Library, running up to the 2004 Presidential Election. I was feeling very active and energized that year, because I felt that we had been royally shafted in 2000, of course, and I wanted to do anything I could to participate in the process, and "be informed".

I did not look at any of the books in the library. I have not owned a library card since high school, when it was actually a library card that was made of paper, and did not get scanned in any way, and the returning and releasing of books was still done through stamping an ink date stamp inside the back cover on a little slip of manila thick stock that told you how many days you could keep the book before you started accruing $0.10 per day late fees.

I still have in my possession a library book from the Boston Public Library called "Death of a President" about the JFK assassination. I skipped school the day the report was due, and went downtown with my classmate, and we both worked on our reports. We did not have library cards, and I did not finish my report. So I "checked out" the book, without a library card, i.e. stole the book. Given that this was in 1986, I now owe the Boston Public Library approximately $840, assuming they've not increased their late fees. And it wasn't a very good book. And I got a C+ on the report, because my history teacher knew we'd cut school, and he marked me down a grade for handing in the B+ quality report a day late. I seem to remember we also ended up at Ruggles Pizza that day, which no longer exists, or maybe I am mixing this up with another time.

The Seattle Public Library is a remarkable building from the outside. But I remember very little of the inside. I did not explore the library at all after the session was over. The only noteworthy aspect of that, most recent visit to a public library was that I had a chance encounter that turned out to be of rather great consequence on the road of life. Kerry ultimately lost that election, even though I was energized and activist. But my enthusiasm for the process sparked other good things.

But I digress, cryptic though I may be.

So, I am probably not the best person to talk about the goings-on inside our lye-berries.

But let me say a word or two anyway.

The question of internet filtering immediately crosses the topic of censorship. That has to make the freedom-minded individual prickle at least a little bit at censorship happening in a library, which is supposed to represent the very notion of freedom of thought and expression, with its millions of books on millions of topics. How can the institution that stood up for things like "Brave New World" and "1984" and "Catcher in the Rye" then say "No!" to internet porn? One man's smut is another man's morning news, right?

But alas, it's never that simple. Is there a moral absolute? Are there some things that just fall below the line? Well, I am not sure, but I suspect that Seattle Public Library does not stock a full collection of "Anal Fantasies" magazine. I may be wrong. But I suspect. So is it inconsistent to lock down on the internets the same types of material that are deemed below the level of acceptability for a public institution's printed materials? Maybe we can all agree that pornography doesn't need to be freely browsable in a public place where anyone, young or old, could be viewing it.

But, is pornography the only thing being filtered from the internet in public libraries? Hm... I don't know the answer to that one. I know at least one person who probably does know the answer to that one. But since they're asleep right now, I am going to try Google.

After 30 seconds of Googling, I have learned that gambling is also often blocked. File sharing sites are often blocked. There are software systems sold specifically for libraries to implement these filters. Custom filters can be applied. Systems can send alerts, block completely, or merely log users' activity. There are sites that decry all of this as First Amendment violations. There are sites that advocate it from the standpoint of protecting laws (e.g. underage pornography, or illegal file-sharing), as well as protecting public computers from virus contamination.

Reading a little further, 21 states have laws requiring filtering in libraries or public schools.

There have been Supreme Court decisions on internet filtering, and the court deemed the laws to not violate First Amendment rights, even if some legitimate sites are blocked, because adult patrons can apparently request permission to have access to the blocked sites. 

A majority of the states that have laws about this subject are "Red States" (with exceptions, such as Michigan, California, Pennsylvania).

Some of the blocked sites, that are not pornographic, or gambling, or file-sharing, included sites related to topics such as: 

Rock Music
Medical Supplies
Sex Education
Fly Fishing
Armenian Food
Organic Farming
Planned Parenthood
Libertarian Party

So, the issue here is that when we think about internet filtering, as laypersons, we probably think "Of course, we don't want our children seeing porn, or downloading illegal materials. And anyway, do we want people abusing the privileges of computer use at public locations? Let the libraries make the right decisions. I am sure we can trust them!"

But when you look at the list of examples of blocked site topics above, what you see is that, given the freedom to censor, a library may deem any number of topics to be not of the variety they wish to have available at their establishment. And that's a bit scary.

I do not know what the rules are about public libraries with respect to the printed materials they carry. If you walk into a public library in rural Christian towns, and ask them for a copy of a racy sex or murder novel, can they tell you that they are unable to obtain such a book? Or must a public library procure for a patron any printed material that is available anywhere?

I understand we do not want our children going to the library to browse porn or download music. And we also don't want a dirty old homeless man stashing away in a back corner of the library, masturbating, because he can get sex for free online. But how do we balance those obvious societal norms with protecting against a library, or community, or government imposing censorship and deciding what is or is not acceptable for people to know?

Very interesting questions, these are.


  1. And a very interesting blog post. As a newbie, you have summarized things quite nicely. Too bad the experts in the American Library Association aren't as honest as you.

  2. ....gorillas?