Saturday, November 15, 2008

“Easy Usage” The complexness of Internet filters in libraries


The Internet has made life easier. Or has it? Certainly it provides a plethora of information that even those with minimal search skills can utilize rather effectively. At the same time, however, the proliferation of Internet usage has raised legal and ethical questions concerning the safety of our youth. This seems to put librarians at odds with the communities they serve. On the one hand there are champions of the First Amendment who seek to insure that access to information is all-inclusive (or as close as humanly possible). On the other, there are those who seek to insure the safety of children. Both are undoubtedly important but come at odds with each other when children and Internet usage in libraries collide. The current “catch-all” solution is to filter computers in libraries with access to the Internet. This discussion will highlight five basic characteristics of filtering software and explain their advantages and/or disadvantages. It will also explain why some libraries choose to use filtering software and others do not. It also argues that whether a library chooses to filter or not, legal problems sill exist.

Advantages and disadvantages of filtering: Five characteristics

Blocking “questionable” material—Some people believe that “questionable” material should be blocked. Disadvantage: The problem with this is that what constitutes “questionable” material will vary greatly from person depending upon their “moral compass.” Because of the ambiguity associated with the term “questionable” there does not appear to be an efficient way to accomplish this without accidentally restricting information to constitutionally protected material.

Blocking pornographic websites—Some people believe that access to pornographic websites should be blocked especially when there is the potential that children may access it. Advantage: keeping such material from children, especially young children, is a good thing. Disadvantage: filtering websites for pornography may unintentionally restrict access to constitutionally protected material. This is why it is important that the responsibility of restricting such information rests with the parents. Equally important is that libraries have clear policies in place reflecting Internet filtering. For example, the Kern County Public Library’s (2006) Internet policy states “The Library has provided filtering services that parents, guardians and minors may activate which help eliminate access to material that may be inappropriate for minors, and chat rooms” (Kern County Library Internet Use Policy).

Blocking Internet chat sites—In today’s Internet environment many minors have been the targets and victims of Internet predators. This has been illuminated by the recent Dateline series “To catch a predator.” In a survey conducted by Dateline, five hundred teenagers were asked if they had chatted with strangers online and if they have ever wanted to meet the strangers they were chatting with. An “overwhelming” majority admitted to chatting with strangers and fifty-eight percent admitted to wanting to meet these strangers in person. The threat is tangible. Advantage: filtering software can block some chatting websites but not all and offers limited protection. Disadvantage: Once again there is the possibility that constitutionally protected material will be blocked. Also, adults and parents alike must remember that today’s children are very skilled in the use of computers and the Internet and may be able to circumvent such software. This reinforces the point that even the best Internet filtering software is not a substitute for parental supervision.

“Go lists,” directing navigation to certain “approved” websites—Some people advocate the usage of “go lists” which list specific websites that a user may visit (Internet filters 101). Advantage: an effective use of this software may be to create “homework” stations where the “go lists” provide access to websites that help children with their homework. Disadvantage: Just as with any filtering software there is the potential for the user to circumnavigate the system.
Blocking “obscene material”—Some people believe that access should be restricted regarding “obscene material.” Disadvantage: While the Court has attempted to define “obscene material” (e.g. Roth v. United States et al) there still remains much ambiguity. Because of the uncertainness of “obscene material,” the potential of blocking constitutionally protected material remains.

Why some libraries choose to filter and others do not

It seems the main factor that determines whether libraries filter Internet content or not is the existence of legislation that either requires such use statutorily or determines funds that are allocated to the library. The reality many libraries are facing is that their very existence is determined by the availability of public funds for support. Because of the threats posed to our youth while using the Internet, there has been a call by many for public policy restricting the use of the Internet through the use of filters. There is legislation, both on the state and federal level that address such concerns. For example, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) stipulates that any school or library who wish to apply for public funds for Internet access, must attest that their organization has in place a means of protection against “certain visual depictions available on the Internet” (Chmara 2006, 377). The various state laws currently in effect either require filters as a point of public policy or tie funding to the existence of filters in libraries. For example, California ties its legislation to public funds; California Education Code § 18030.5 states:
(a) Every public library that receives state funds pursuant to this chapter and that provides public access to the Internet shall, by a majority vote of the governing board, adopt a policy regarding access by minors to the Internet by January 1, 2000. (CALIFORNIA EDUCATION CODE SECTION 18030-18032).

In Arizona it is a matter of public policy; Arizona statute § 34-502 states:
A public school that provides a public access computer shall equip the computer with software that seeks to prevent minors from gaining access to material that is harmful to minors or purchase Internet connectivity from an Internet service provider that provides filter services to limit access to material that is harmful to minors. Standards and rules for the enforcement of this subsection shall be prescribed by the governing board of every school district. (Computer access; harmful to minors 34-502)[1]

As evidenced by the above examples, the public “mood” regarding filters varies from state to state.

There are also some libraries that choose to not have any filtering software whatsoever. Most often these libraries stand firm in their belief in the speech clause of the First Amendment. Adhering to the principles set for in the Bill of Rights does not, however, make libraries immune to litigation in the realm of Internet filtering. Such litigation took place in Livermore (1998), California regarding a complaint filed by a parent in Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore. In this case the plaintiff contended that the Livermore Public Library (LPL) neglected to ensure minors did not have access to pornographic material distributed via the Internet. Sticking to the recommendations found in the Intellectual Freedom Manual’s (2006) “Essential preparation,” the LPL had a well-developed Internet use policy. Their policy states:
The Library’s Internet access is intended as an information resource. The Internet allows users to connect to networks of resources outside the library. The Internet is a global entity with a highly diverse user population. The Internet has no federal, state or local control of its users or content [emphasis added]. The Internet and its available resources may contain materials of a controversial nature. The Livermore Public Library does not monitor and has no control over the information accessed through the Internet and cannot be held responsible for its content. Users are cautioned [emphasis added] that accuracy, completeness and currency of information found on the Internet varies widely. Library patrons use the Internet at their own risk [emphasis added]. (Quoted from Livermore: Response/Demurrer, 1998)

The case made it all the way to the California State Appellate Court and the decision of the court reflected the current stance regarding the Federal CIPA statute.

Sometimes whether a library uses filters or not may influence the outcome of local bond measures to fund libraries. Such is the case with the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District, the Phoenix Public Library, and other libraries that felt that being CIPA compliant had an adverse effect on local library bond measures. Oder (2006) notes that these libraries, when soliciting feedback regarding filtering policies, two-thirds of the respondents favored more stringent measures (17). This forces libraries to be ever more efficient in balancing the wishes of the community with protecting patrons’ First Amendment rights.

Not only are libraries facing litigation regarding whether they have filtering software, they are also running the risk of being sued by entities for having their website blocked. American Libraries (2006) reports that a group of libraries in Missouri was sued in 2005 because their filtering software excluded a conservative political group’s website. After this was brought to the attention of these libraries the site was unblocked. This highlights the problem that filters are not all inclusive, that is, there is information that may be unintentionally included. Such uncertainty opens libraries that use filters to similar litigation.Summary

Filters have a number of advantages and disadvantages. The most advantageous aspect of a filter is the potential for use in homework assistance stations utilizing “go lists.” Directing students to “peer evaluated” websites will provide potentially authoritative and accurate information. The most glaring problem with filters, however, is that they are not flawless. Someone with proficient computer skills can circumvent them.

Because of these problems many libraries believe that the best way to protect the First Amendment is to not use filters at all. This opens libraries to litigation but those libraries with well-developed usage policies may survive such attacks. Libraries that are required to utilize filters because of state law will find some solace knowing that CIPA provides a clause allowing librarians to disable filtering software upon request. Conclusion

Should filters be required in libraries? No. While protecting children from the negative aspects of the Internet is important we need to ask who is responsible for this protection? Certainly, this needs to begin in the home as parents have the primary responsibility in informing their children about the potential dangers of the Internet. Responsible parenting does not end in the home as it also extends outside the home. This is why it is important to develop clear Internet usage policies such as the libraries in Livermore and Kern County and elsewhere throughout the country.

CALIFORNIA EDUCATION CODE SECTION 18030-18032. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2006 from 19000&file=18030-18032

Children and the Internet: Laws Relating to Filtering, Blocking and Usage Policies in Schools and Libraries. (2006). Retrieved October 20, 2006 from

Chmara, T. (2006) Public libraries and the public forum doctrine. In Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, Intellectual Freedom Manual (369-383). Chicago: American Library Association.

Computer access; harmful to minors. (n.d.). Retrieved October 20, 2006 from

Dateline NBC. (2006). Most teens say they've met strangers online. Retrieved October 28, 2006 from

Group sues libraries for blocking its website. (2006). American Libraries 37(5). Retrieved October 27, 2006 from WilsonWeb.

Internet Filters 101. (2000). Retrieved October 20, 2006 from

Kern County Internet Usage Policy. (2006) Retrieved October 27, 2006 from

Livermore: Response/Demurrer.(1998). Retrieved October 24, 2006 from

Oder, N. (2006). Full filtering at WA library. Library Journal 131(5), 17.

[1] For a summary of the various state laws see Children and the Internet: Laws Relating to Filtering, Blocking and Usage Policies in Schools and Libraries at

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