Filtering pornography from library computers - the debate that has split the library movement

"Users by and large value very highly the privacy of their communication and internet use, and helping to protect this is a concern for information professionals."
Prof. Paul Sturges  Loughborough University

Casual library users in the UK are probably unaware of the intensity of the filtering debate that is raging in the USA. The issue, put simply, is a conflict between people who seek to uphold the First Amendment rights to receive information freely and without discrimination, and those who are anxious (and often angry) about the effects of undiluted pornography being made freely available to children as well as adults on library Internet computers. The widespread use of 'privacy screens' in US libraries to allow people to work without being overlooked by passers by or other users has also been criticised, yet it is a widely held view that people have a right to receive private information without being overlooked. Given that it is now a part of the library function in the UK to provide the technology for citizens' access to e-government, and that on-line contacts involving benefits or tax may be confidential, it follows that privacy should also be provided. This is despite spurious arguments put forward by some library computer managers that privacy has no place in a public library just because it is a public place.

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"It is the responsibility of individuals using Public Access Points to decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access."

"Those providing Public Access Points should respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential."
Draft Council of Europe Guidelines (see discussion below)

" We recently had a PC user masturbating while looking at pornography in one of our major libraries. What do we do? Erect booths that can be hosed down?" Comment from librarian in the UK, posted on discussion website.

Original cartoon by John Pritchett USA.

However, in the UK there has been virtually no debate. The UK does not have a written Constitution, nor does it have anything that remotely approaches a proper Freedom of Information Act. Also, people in the UK rarely complain as much as do Americans, but this is changing despite that complaining to government (and especially to local government) is a proven waste of time. Internet routes to complaining (see cprotect.htm for details) are a new feature in the UK, and arguably better organised than some more established sites in the USA. They allow easy 'first stage' complaints but if a local Council subsequently refuses to answer letters then you are no further forward.

The debate on filtering in the USA has seen few inhibitions. On the one side are the ALA and many 'freedom' groups and on the other a few 'concerned citizens'. Both have websites and the Internet is one of the battlegrounds. For details of some of the organisations, see the previous page in this section Internet_Privacy_organisations.htm. This also gives references to some 'technical and policy papers' on filtering. The majority of library 'policies' are derived from these. However, Guidelines from the Council of Europe may become influential or indeed a requirement. In a recently published booklet (ISBN 92-871-4651-9), Part 2 is devoted to outlining core principles for 'cultural institutions' that provide public access to networked information. For some reason the direct hyperlink does not work, so try, go to Culture and from there search for "Public Access and Freedom of Expression". Amongst the Guidelines (published in 2001 after most public libraries had already issued their own and largely draconian policy documents and Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) are the following:

"It is the responsibility of individuals using Public Access Points to decide for themselves what they should, or should not, access."

"Those providing Public Access Points should respect the privacy of users and treat knowledge of what they have accessed or wish to access as confidential."

"The use by the managers of Public Access points of software filtering systems to block access to certain content is an unwarranted interference with the individual's freedom of access to information. If filtering and blocking systems are to be made available, it should only be as an option that individuals can choose and calibrate at their own preferred levels."

"Staff should not be required to exercise general supervision of usage with the express intention of identifying the use of illegal or otherwise distasteful content. However, if such use is drawn to their attention, they have an obligation to request the cessation of illegal use and to encourage more discreet use of other disturbing content."

As for locally adopted Internet Use Policies, these should be "consistent with the principles of this text, and expressing the balance of responsibilities between staff and users".

If these guidelines are in any way adopted by or imposed upon public libraries in the UK not only will most AUPs have to be rewritten and snooping systems abandoned but public access computers will have to be located so that users have a sensible degree of privacy. Presumably no-one in Government knew about these Guidelines when People's Network computers were being installed.

A central feature of my complaints about Devon Library Services (described at length in another section of this website) was the almost total lack of concern shown towards providing privacy for people using library computers. Most of the arguments advanced in the UK in support of computers being 'supervised', 'overlooked by staff' and (in addition) being put under intensive electronic surveillance by Council officials results from one central fear - that children would be exposed to 'inappropriate' material. The controlling authority might then be prosecuted and have its computers closed down. This has apparently happened at least once in the UK (anyone knowing the details please forward them to me.) In the USA, almost the reverse applies. Much of the debate there centres around the effectiveness of commercially available 'filtering' programs.

Advocates say filtering is essential (certainly something is needed!) but the performance of programs in blocking out many medical and 'genuine art' sites has led to claims that their use in public libraries (these being a part of government) is unconstitutional. Students have complained that some 'filtered' library machines are so useless for projects on breast cancer (for example) that they have to wait to use home computers. Of particular concern is so called stealth blocking which apparently can arrange for sites to be blocked but without the end user being aware that they even exist.

One of my earliest letters to Devon Library Services, and also those to newspapers in the UK, now seems prescient. (See Library Dispute Section of this website). Long before I had become aware of the debate in the USA or the Council of Europe Guidelines I advocated that some form of filtering be applied to remove the worst of 'pornography' and other unacceptable material and that users then be permitted to use computers in private and without an overarching degree of electronic or other snooping.

Filtering software (some of it based on little more than blocking sites that contain keywords or areas of 'fleshtone colour') simply does not seem able to keep pace both with blocking new 'unwanted' sites and allowing those that are permitted to be viewed. In any case, libraries may need (or feel they need) some manual 'deselection' of sites in addition to blocking those that can easily be screened by basic filtering programs. Even this suggestion is enough to promote howls of derision in the USA: censorship!!

Libraries could surely maintain an up-to-date database of the sites they will allow on their machines. But like so much in the UK, why does an expensive and time consuming job have to be done dozens if not hundreds of times over in different parts of the country and always by local officials who may not be either particularly interested or competent? Why not have a national system, updated daily or weekly, and with an open public debate as to what is allowed or not on all library machines?

Indeed, updating the system to cope with the ever more ingenious ways that pornography sites try to get around filtering programs could largely be left to library users. For every 'naughty' site that a user managed (or happened) to find, he (or she) would be rewarded by the Library Authority, perhaps by way of a further free computer session. At the moment, almost the reverse applies - anyone found looking at a dubious site in the UK is viewed with deep suspicion, questioned in public and may be asked to leave the library. With more imagination being applied to the problem, and if local fiefdoms could give way to a national (or even European) database or server system for libraries, we could have Internet access that blocked only the 'worst' sites, a diminution or cessation of electronic snooping at the local level and an incentive for 'computer geeks' to defeat the system and be rewarded for their expertise. Parents could choose whether to allow access to the full site area, or to a much restricted subset, much as now in the UK. All of this would be far too sensible for local government in the UK.

However, if society really wanted to put many of them out of business the way to do it might be to target VISA and other credit card systems providers who (somewhere along the payment line) are sanctioning companies who operate often third party reseller merchant services. These enable 'porn' sites to collect money without perhaps being themselves able to set up and operate a credit card merchant service account - at least not in the UK. The following site is not recommended viewing for timid librarians but at least it is free - subsidised by sponsors and their adverts!  (based in the Netherlands since 1996 and billed as the most popular free site in the world). For the more adventurous, try In all, a selection of good reasons for having competent filter controls on library computers and no reason at all for wholescale snooping by local officials on local people.

Numerous cartoons are available on US library and library related websites: some in better taste than others!

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