Friday, February 06, 2015

Filtering the Internet: Does it Keep the Bad Stuff Out?

Internet filters are a highly controversial topic when it comes to public computers in the library. Many people feel that filters are great because they prevent vulnerable populations (such as children) from viewing harmful materials, either directly, through an accidental Google Image search, or indirectly, such as passing by an adult viewing violent or sexually explicit images.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist states in his paper, “Internet Filters Should Be Used in Libraries” (2004) that filters “provide necessary protection for children, and adult library patrons can easily request that the filter be disabled or a site unblocked” (p.71). He states that “libraries can set their software to prevent the blocking of material that falls into categories like ‘Education’, ‘History’, and ‘Medical’...and may also add or delete specific sites from a blocking category” (p.72).  
Advocates for filters almost never intend to purposefully censor the Internet; they are often wholeheartedly concerned for the well being of children in the library. However, filters do just that: censor.

One must not forget that filtering software is sold by private companies with their own agendas, many of which are forced onto the general public when installed on library computers. Schrader (1999) explains, “Many products also block any reference to homosexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality. As a spokesperson stated: ‘We filter anything that has to do with sex. Sexual orientation is about sex by virtue of the fact that it has sex in the name’... But most products do not focus exclusively on sex and violence, however. Many have strong political and ideological motivations. Some block all feminist sites, such as NOW, the National Organization for Women, feminist newsgroups, and sites such as alt.feminism. Also blocked was the Planned Parenthood site. One product blocked the important Holocaust archive and anti-revisionist resource site Nizkor for a time because it was claimed to contain ‘hate speech’” (p. 10-11). These filter companies are privately owned and operated. They have a private agenda that often takes on a role that is more about censorship than about protecting young minds from harmful sites.

What many advocates for filters don’t realize is that ultimately, filter technology is not yet effective enough (nor will it probably ever be) to prevent absolutely all harmful material from being viewed. If someone using a public library computer wants to view alternative images, they can (and will) find a way. The opposite is just as true. While filters are designed to prevent harmful information from being displayed, too often they block sexual health sites and reputable sources of information as well. A study conducted by researchers at UC-Berkeley in 2007 found that “Generally, filters with lower rates of underblocking had higher rates of overblocking. If the filter most effective at blocking adult materials were applied to search indexes, typical query results, or the results of popular queries, the number of clean pages blocked in error would exceed the number of adult pages blocked correctly” (1).  Filters are just not advanced enough to replicate human decision-making regarding what is “safe” information and information that is “harmful”. For example, a filter may block all sites containing the word “breast” in order to prevent pornographic images from being shown. However, this could block access to sites discussing breast cancer or even how to cook chicken breasts! While librarians can and do tweak filtering software to prevent these sorts of instances from occurring, it is a lengthy, time-consuming process that is often complicated. As well, the internet is so vast that one cannot simply find all websites devoted to a topic such as breast cancer and prevent the filter from blocking them.

Of course, librarians want to protect the children that visit their branches, and many library internet use policies will take a firm stance on viewing explicit material on their machines. Edmonton Public Library’s Internet Use Policy (2015) states:
“Library computers or wireless may not be used to:
  • Access sites or transmit materials which violate any Canadian federal or provincial law or City Bylaw such as defamatory, discriminatory, or obscene materials
  • Send fraudulent, harassing, or obscene communications
  • Display overt sexual images”

EPL’s policy is backed by statements made by professional organizations, such as CLA’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom and CLA’s Statement on Internet Access.

So what can we as librarians do to protect vulnerable populations? One of the most important, and easiest, things we can do is to educate parents. Parents need to realize that the library is not obligated to care for unsupervised children, and that the best way that children can be protected is to have their internet usage monitored by parents. One excellent piece of literature out there for parents is CLA’s publication NetSafe, NetSmart: Managing and Communicating about Internet in the Library. By educating parents and children about best internet practices in the library, we can protect vulnerable populations while still protecting people’s rights to intellectual freedom and a censor-free Web.

Sources and Further Reading Under the Break:

Edmonton Public Libraries.(2013). Internet Use Policy. Retrieved from
Marney, D. (2010). The Internet Is Not All or Nothing. Library Journal, 135(18), 32.
Oliver, K., Pinnell-Stephens, J., & Jones, B. (2011). All or Nothing: Hardly the Facts. Library Journal, 136(3), 42-43.
Minow, M., & Lipinski, T. A. (2003). The library's legal answer book [electronic resource]. Chicago: American Library Association.
Neiburger, E., Houghton-Jan, S., & Griffey, J. (2010). Privacy and Freedom of Information in 21st-century Libraries. Chicago, IL: ALA TechSource.
Rehnquist, W.H. (2005). Internet filters should be used in libraries. In Nakaya, A. (Ed), Censorship (p.71-74). Detroit: Greenhaven Press.
Rogers, K. (2014, December 11).  Why Librarians Are Defending Your Right to Watch Porn at the Library. Motherboard. Retrieved from
Sawicki, A. (2010). Library internet filters are necessary. In Merino, N. (Ed), Censorship (p.112-117). Detroit: Greenhaven Press.
Schrader, A. (1999). Internet Filters: Library Access Issues in a Cyberspace World. Retrieved from


Kenneth Sawdon said...

I think it's important to point out one of the subsequent flaws of the horribly designed (unintentional or otherwise) filters: fixing them takes up time. I don't mean time on the part of the designers, I mean on the part of library staff. Library workers are the ones expected to turn off filters for patrons. Library workers are the ones expected to make a list of exceptions. This is an unnecessary drain on valuable information professional's time.


As for EPL's Prohibited Uses...I have a problem with the second prohibited use. It implies that EPL will monitor (ie: read the text of) patron communications. I believe this is against their practices, so it's effectively impossible to notice or prove.

Further, I'm very disappointed in EPL's third Prohibited Use: "[displaying] overt sexual images." There are many reasons to view pornographic content beyond the obvious. Further, even if there *weren't* it's no business of library staff as to why a patron wants to access certain materials. Public libraries provide access unconditionally, no one ever asks *why* a patron wants a book. It's on the shelf? Good, use the resource.

What is unacceptable in a library is only what is legally unacceptable, namely public indecency (as well as the first Prohibited Use).

I think EPL's restriction, here, betrays the CLA's Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom.

Also, the CLA's Statement on Internet Access is weak. The ALA's position on Filters and Filtering is much better ( Though, both have the problem of being mere "guidelines" for libraries.

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