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Libraries to filter Internet

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Multnomah County, in a case with implications for the rest of the country, is resigning itself to the fact that you win some and you lose some. The win and loss this time around is in regard to free speech. Unfettered access to the Internet is something we old hands take for granted. We accept that some pornography will inevitably pop up when we least expect it and that our email will contain the usual offers of Viagra and triple X pics. Some of us even seek such material out. But, we are old hands — and adults. The question of whether Internet access should be freely available becomes more complex when children are involved.

The county first clashed with the federal government over the matter in 2002, filing a lawsuit in response to regulations it refused to implement. The regulations of the Child Online Protection Act would have allowed the federal government to decide which patrons of libraries could see what via Internet connected computers. Content that might be seen by children was to be filtered or else. The Act would have held libraries financially responsible if pornographic Internet content was sought out or slipped through. Multnomah County prevailed in court. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled the Act was unconstitutional because it unduly restricted access to information.

Congress passed the Child Protection Act in 1998, but it never went into effect. The law would have authorized fines up to $50,000 for the crime of placing harmful material within easy reach of children.

But, to an extent, the outcome in regard to the Child Online Protection Act was a Pyrrhic victory. Congress had passed another law restricting use of the Internet in public libraries. It is the later regulations that were upheld. The Multnomah County Library system, and possibly yours, is not in compliance with them.

The county — one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the then-nascent Children’s Internet Protection Act — argued that Internet filters were a form of censorship and prohibited access to information. Government officials countered that without filters libraries allowed access to pornography. The new law, they said, simply stopped children from viewing objectionable material.

Librarians and proponents of free speech complained that filters are the equivalent of censorship. Under filtered Internet use, students would be blocked from viewing sites that could be potentially helpful for school projects — date rape or abusive relationships, for instance — but that would be filtered out because of certain key words.

Multnomah County joined the American Library Association as a plaintiff in the suit and then-Director Ginnie Cooper — who now runs the Brooklyn Public Library — testified against the law.

. . .In 2002, a federal panel of judges in Philadelphia ruled that the law violated the First Amendment because filters blocked too much material that wasn’t pornographic in nature. But in 2003, the Supreme Court overruled the panel, saying that because libraries can unlock the filters upon request, they don’t impose too great a burden on the systems that use them.

The different rulings in the two cases can be summed up in one word: control. The COPA put control directly in the federal government’s hands, the ultimate in state action. The CIPA, though, allows libraries to exercise some discretion in filtering Internet content.

For the most part, the Children’s Internet Protection Act and the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case last year don’t serve as mandates to filter Internet use by children. Libraries still have control over the Internet use of children and other patrons.

A number of library systems in larger metropolitan areas offer a choice of filtered or unfiltered access. Some smaller and midsized systems decided to comply with the law in order to keep federal money, while others are figuring out how to balance the need for protection against the freedom to gather information.

The federal government is using a carrot instead of a stick to urge compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Library systems that filter all Internet computers or filter any used by children, including teens, are eligible for federal funds. Systems that do not are not. Libraries decide whether to censor the Internet. However, SCOTUS has ruled that their decisionmaking does not amount to usurping the free speech rights of the public because exceptions can be made — filters can be removed when it is deemed appropriate.

It is unclear how effective any of the plans that allow some form of filtering will be. Pornography is so rampant on the Internet that innocuous browsing can lead to a site full of lascivious photos. Even filtered computers, which search for porn using key words, are likely to miss some. Or, the material may enter through a back door, such as clicking on a recently published blog in the Blogger masthead and discovering it contains racy material. Furthermore, children who are subjected to censorship at the library may not be at home, the coffee shop or the neighborhood pizza place. Efforts to control children’s access to pornographic content completely will prove futile.

Multnomah County Library will allow children under 13 to use only filtered computers.

What’s the art?

An exterior view of the historic central Multnomah County Library in downtown Portland, Oregon. The building opened in 1913.

Reasonably related

The American Library Association maintains a comprehensive collection of information about the Children’s Internet Protection Act on its site.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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About The Diva

  • Mike Kole

    Come on, now! This is the good, benevolent government! These are just good laws that are looking out for the children, and besides, acting to serve the common good! If they limit a little freedom, so what?

    The government that is good enough to control and regulate business is somehow not good enough to control and regulate what you read? Gosh, I’m confused. Same premise, just a different area of life.

  • bhw

    Well, Mike, yes. Individuals should have as much freedom as possible. I don’t apply the same principle to companies as I do to people.

  • Even as a staunch libertarian, I have issues with children getting porn at the library. If kids are getting smut on their home computers, that’s the responsibility of their parents, but I’m not a bit happy about government subsidizing the smut, and giving kids a home away from home to view it out of sight or control of their parents – and then calling it a “free speech” issue.

    It is NOT a “free speech” issue. If the government tells you what you can look at on YOUR computer in your home, then that would be a free speech issue. Calling for a “right” to look at porn on library computers paid for by taxpayers is akin to welfare “rights” to have someone else pay for your stuff.

    On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of the federal government telling local librarians what they can and can’t allow access to. Doing it by carrot of subsidies is less bad than by simply dictating – but the federal government has absolutely no business subsidizing local libraries in the first place.

    These would best be considered local issues for the county or whatever principle entity is funding them. At that level, though, I would absolutely favor reasonable restrictions on sexually explicit content. It’s just not goddam appropriate for a public library with children.

    Is it a restriction on patron’s “free speech” that the library doesn’t subscribe to Hustler? Jerk off on your own dime – and in the privacy of your own home, OK?

    Even adults don’t have any legitimate “right” to expect government subsidy for their masturbation – especially in a public place where children will be wandering around. Or perhaps we should demand that libraries provide private viewing booths, complete with glory holes.

    There may be some issues about smut filters knocking out access to some perfectly legitimate sites, and some inappropriate material will get past whatever kind of filters you come up with. However, it is not the responsibility of a library to give you access to every possible thing you might ever want. Sorry.

    Of course, getting block from a breast cancer site might be about the time to ask for a friendly librarian to unblock access. Or perhaps you could just get an actual BOOK about breast cancer off the shelf.

  • I do believe the great site http://www.mondoirlando.com is the victim of internet filtering in some libraries in the south of the ireland. It’s down to the f**k words, i’m guessing.

  • Whatever this is, I’m against it. I think kids should be forced to covertly access the dirty words in the dictionary on their own, without any government intervention, because how are the little fuckers going to learn if they’re hand held at every stage.

    They should learn how to shop lift porn and booze from the corner store, just like I had to do. Never mind all this teaching them about the sex, let them develop their technique by time-tested empirical methods, and if some little skank gets knocked up, just mark it down to research.

    Remember, ignorance is bliss, and the Constitution guaran-fucking-tees that all people get the bliss. And, as it says in that there document: “Power Comes From The Barrel Of A Gun”.

  • Yes Jim, we need to make sure the kiddies can access porn at the library so they won’t be getting pregnant.

    I suppose it would be considered reactionary if I suggested that parents should teach their children about sex, rather than them learning it by doing “research” on smut sites via library computers.

  • Jake

    I didn’t realize that the corner store carried Boone’s farm or kiddie porn.

    Oh you weren’t shop lifting. That was called sticking your hand in to that strange man’s pocket.

  • Al, the best way to ensure young punks are going to try to access something they shouldn’t at the library is to have the State mandate they shouldn’t. Because you know those demonized civil servants, why, they’re probably going to do a really crappy job of it.

    If wanking in public is a problem in the States, then do something about it. But mandating the Great Firewall of Murrica is just foolish, why, you’d be no better than the People’s Republic of China. And you wouldn’t want to be like China with sham elections, eroding wages, and membership in the Party a requirement for connections to do business, would you?

  • bhw

    I’ve said this on another thread, but I think the filters should be opt-in filters and not opt-out. The problem is that porn isn’t the only thing filtered.

    It’s still up to parents to know what their kids are and aren’t up to, whether they’re at home, a friend’s house, or the public library.

  • bhw, I totally agree, since the job libraries do is to classify and filter information. That’s what librarians do. Just let them do their job.

    Otherwise, you’re no better than a half-assed corporate-controlled State with the lowest common denominator as the benchmark of your culture mediated by morons.

    (and I can just hear the USAians yelling from the back-seat, “are we there yet?”)

  • Among the sites I’ve encountered filters on at a large entity is Natalie Davis.’ Any of you who know Natalie realize she is not one to talk dirty or post pornography to her blog. But, she does write about sexual matters, including homosexuality. That, apparently may be enough to have her censored at Kinko’s. This is an example of how Internet filtering can block appropriate speech. Meanwhile, I’m sure that if I knocked around a while, I could wiggle my way to a porn site while at Kinko’s. The inexactitude of Internet filtering is significant.

    bhw’s suggestion of opt-in for filtering does make sense. It is my belief that only parents who are particularly concerned with the pornography issue would request filtering. Most would be indifferent, especially for older kids.

    It is a complex matter. I have not worked out any magic solution to how to protect children from pornography at the library in their formative years. But, the current law appears to be too rigid.

  • Also, in kinda-response to MD, and i’m not using these words by way of being willfully offensive (i do quite enough of that on my own posts, thank you), it is quite dificult, i would imagine, to censor “porn” sites when new and ever more exotic fetishes are being discovered every hour. Would the word “teabagging” be filtered for example? what about “dogging”? Even “fisting”, i’m sure, has legitimate uses like, i dunno, if the writer is married or something.
    You know what i mean, though? It’s difficult to keep up, no pun intended.

  • I was thinking along the same lines, Duke. In the gay male population, a ‘bear’ is a big, hairy down-to-earth man who would not be caught dead in a designer suit. A story about the three bears and what they did at ‘Goldilocks’ party last week might well get past the filter.

  • exactly. you put it much better.

  • bhw

    One thing libraries can do, now that their all computerized, is simply ask all parents to indicate whether or not they want their kids to have free Internet acess. The answer to that question gets stored with the kid’s other information, like name and address. Then when the kid gives the librarian his/her card to use a library computer, the librarian can look up the kid’s record and will know whether or not to turn on the filter.

    Pretty simple.