Magazine article Computers in Libraries

When Does Filtering Turn into Censorship?

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

When Does Filtering Turn into Censorship?

Article excerpt

Using no Internet filters leads to offended children; but using filters may violate the Constitution.

Will you be filtering the Internet any time soon? It will be interesting to see what happens to you, because you will be between a rock and a hard place. I would not venture to guess which is which, but one is your conservative users who pay the bills and seem to think they have a say in the matter. The other is the American Library Association and free speech advocates.

ALA has taken a consistent stance against any form of Net censorship and has spent a considerable amount of resources to stop such things as the Communications Decency Act and a New York State "harmful to minors act," which is similar. ALA's current Internet-aware policy is called "Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights." This document does not address filtering per se. Apparently a statement on filtering will be forthcoming, but I was not able to confirm this by deadline. I suspect most observers would agree that it is inconceivable that ALA would support filtering in any form. That would represent an entirely new precedent and is not expected in the light of previously existing policies.

Despite ALA policies, cities such as Boston, Austin, and even Seattle are installing filters of one sort or another either system-wide or in selected areas of the library. In the case of Boston, the mayor decided to do this in spite of the library. In the case of King County Library System in Seattle, the board of trustees decided to filter systems in children's areas only. These libraries are not unique, but they have hit upon this issue early because their operations are ahead of many libraries that have not yet taken the plunge. Why has this happened?

The basic reason is a move to graphical interfaces for the Net. Heretofore, many libraries have had Internet access, but not graphical. Kitsap has used the Lynx character-based browser for well over two years with nary a complaint. But character-based isn't considered "good enough" by many, so there is a push toward the graphical user interface (GUI). Several grant opportunities recently have been devoted primarily to getting GUI-based Internet into every library. That seems to be a requirement to get grant money. As we all roll onto this bandwagon, the pressure to "do something" about Net porn will intensify.

Scenario One: "Accidental" Access

Let's say that a library finally has graphical access: It bought a nice Pentium with a large color monitor and Microsoft Internet Explorer. The library has a nice home page, getting better all the time. Of course, there is a link to a search engine, maybe to several. One of them is bound to be Yahoo!, but AltaVista works just fine, too. It's very popular with the after-school set. They tend to dominate the terminals. The library has a time limit, but the Internet is so popular that the terminal is in use any time the library is open.

A couple of young men manage to get to the terminal. The first thing they type is The magazine's home page appears, and a couple of clicks later there is a nude photograph on the screen. The young men snicker and then they walk away. The next person comes up to the terminal with his six-year-old daughter in tow. They have come in to search the Internet for a school assignment, but they are greeted by the November Playmate of the Month. (Bear in mind that this is tasteful compared to a lot of stuff on the Web. Go do a search on "piercings" if you want a sample.)

Consequently, the librarian in charge gets a visit from an outraged parent. The director is called. The board of trustees gets involved. And the next Saturday there are picket lines in front of the library protesting "Porno at the Library" and "Save Our Children from Porno." The local newspaper puts it on the front page.

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