Take a look at the filter issue heating up (LibrarianActivist.org) at the London Public Library. Reprinted here is a thoughtful letter by Samuel E. Trosow.
From: Samuel E. Trosow
To: London Public Library Board Chairperson Svetlana MacDonald, Vice-Chairperson David Winninger, Board Members Gina Barber, Nancy Branscombe, Jerry Colwell, Jo Deslippe, Jan Lubell, Josh Morgan, and Joanne Tilly; CEO Anne Becker, and Board Secretary.
Re: Internet Filtering Policy - Request for Delegation Status at June 20, 2007 LPL Board Meeting
Dated: June 12, 2007
Through this letter I am requesting delegation status to address the London Public Library Board at its June 20, 2007 meeting on the topic of LPL’s Internet filtering policy.
By way of introduction, I am an Associate Professor at the University of Western Ontario holding a joint appointment in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies (FIMS), where I teach in the Library & Information Science program, and in the Faculty of Law. I have a strong interest in public library policies pertaining to access to information and intellectual freedom, and I have been an active participant in the work of various library associations. The purpose of this letter and my presentation to the Board is to express my concern about the Internet filtering policies being implemented at LPL, to request that the Board reconsider these policies, and to suggest possible alternative courses of action.
My understanding is that LPL is currently engaged in a process where additional computer terminals in the adult section will be filtered. I have carefully reviewed the LPL’s Internet Policy Project Plan as well as other existing LPL policies and reports, and have reached the conclusion that the current plan to extend Internet filtering is unwarranted. It is not consistent with generally accepted values in the library community, such as the Canadian Library Association’s Code of Ethics and Statement on Intellectual Freedom, and it creates an unreasonable burden on your patrons’ rights to seek and receive information. This burden is not justified by the circumstances that have been presented, as there is no indication of any pressing problem in the library system that warrants such an extreme response. It is also evident that LPL already has several policies in place that would adequately address what limited concerns have arisen, and would do so in such in a manner that is less restrictive of the intellectual freedom and access rights of your patrons.
It is not clear what the problem is that the new LPL policy is addressing
Before undertaking any change in policy that would result in more filtering, there should be a clear indication of what the problem is that needs to be addressed. The Internet Policy Project Plan as it was presented to the LPL Board does not adequately address this crucial threshold issue. In passing there is vague reference to some patron complaints, which apparently have resulted from unintentional exposure to images on a computer:
We have received negative comments on an infrequent but regular basis from customers at Central and Branch locations about these types of incidences. Our mission statement and value promise assures customers that we will provide a welcoming environment for all people, such as families and children, and pays attention to the individual’s experience in the Library (Plan, p. 2).
This reference to “infrequent but regular” complaints doesn’t rise to the level of justification for a policy change of this nature. The problem identified here could just as easily be remedied by less drastic alternatives such as rearranging the furniture, placing privacy screens on terminals, or clearing the screen more frequently. While the Plan acknowledges some of these alternatives, it fails to explain why they are inadequate to the problem at hand and not being instituted before resorting to more drastic measures.
Adequate LPL policies are already in place
Taken together, existing LPL policies appear more than adequate to resolve the nature of the problem, such as it has been stated.
Thinking of the materials available on the Internet as an extension of your collection, LPL already has a written policy for dealing with patron complaints about inappropriate materials. LPL’s Collections Management Policy sets out a procedure for resolving complaints and it does not seem to have been followed in the current situation:
The London Public Library Board is aware that some materials are controversial and may offend some patrons. Complaints about materials in the collection are directed to the appropriate librarian. If you wish, you may place a formal written complaint. The complaint is reviewed by the Senior Collections Librarian in consultation with the subject (or branch) librarian, and written response is prepared for you. If this response is not satisfactory, you may ask to appeal the decision to the Chief Executive Officer. If still not satisfied with the outcome, you may appeal to the Library Board.
Were any formal written complaints received in this situation? If so, how were they responded to? Instead of addressing these questions, the Plan simply refers to infrequent complaints in a rather vague manner.
In addition, Section 4.2 of your patron Rules of Conduct applies to particular situations where a patron is making inappropriate use of the library’s computer services:
4. Accessing and Using Intellectual Content
Members of the public and staff are expected to abide by the laws and regulations of Canada and the Province of Ontario when using Library resources to access and use intellectual content.
* * *
4.2 Members of the public must abide by the Criminal Code of Canada, and, specifically, Part V pertaining to sexual offences, public morals and disorderly conduct, including child pornography and obscenity, and Part VIII pertaining to offences against the person, including hate propaganda.
Finally, the LPL policy statement on Computer Use and Internet Access, like the Rules of Conduct, already deals with instances of misuse of the computer facilities and advises patrons that the rules can be enforced by library staff:
Library staff are entrusted with the obligation to ensure that all rules of computer use and Internet access are followed. Staff will advise patrons of appropriate conduct as required and state consequences of not following the rules of conduct should unacceptable behaviour continue or be repeated. Any person violating Library rules of computer use and Internet access risks suspension of Library privileges, exclusion from the Library for a period of time, and prosecution.
It is not at all clear, however, that there has even been any patron misconduct since reference is made to “unintentional” exposure. Is there a persistent and documented problem occurring in the LPL system that cannot be adequately addressed within the framework of current policies? This question should be carefully analyzed and answered in the negative before proceeding with more restrictive alternatives such as filtering.
The problems with Internet filtering
While a full discussion of the negative implications of Internet filtering is beyond what can be included in a short presentation, the conclusion of the 2006 Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report published by the Free Expression Policy Project of the Brennan Center for Social Justice at the NYU Law School summarizes the issues well:
. . . the widespread use of filters presents a serious threat to our most fundamental free expression values. There are much more effective ways to address concerns about offensive internet content. Filters provide a false sense of security, while blocking large amounts of important information in an often irrational or biased way. Although some may say that the debate is over and that filters are now a fact of life, it is never too late to rethink bad policy choices (Executive Report, p. ii).
While the Brennan Report is focused on Internet filtering in the U.S. in the aftermath of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and the resulting litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA), the general principles and documentation contained in the Report are applicable to the Canadian situation. The extensive review of research on the performance of Internet filters supports the general conclusion that Internet filters are by nature imprecise, and often result in the blocking of content that patrons have the right to receive.
In contrast, the LPL Internet Policy Project Plan as it was presented to the Board does not contain an analysis of the performance of the filtering system provided by LPL’s vendor, does not contain any indication of how the blocking list is generated and maintained, and does not discuss how a patron might disable the filter if they so desire.
Conclusion and recommended actions
Under all of the circumstances, the conclusion that the LPL’s plan of extended Internet filtering violates basic principles of intellectual freedom and access to information is unavoidable. It is the type of policy that can result from reducing basic and fundamental values of librarianship to issues of “customer-service.”
In closing, I would make the following suggestions:
· The Board should rescind its actions taken at the May Board meeting and refrain from installing filters on any additional computers in the adult sections of the Central and Branch Libraries. If the blocking software has been already installed, it should be removed.
· Existing policies under which terminals in the adult sections are filtered should be reviewed for consistency with the policies and concerns raised in this letter.
· Any further proposals for Internet filtering should be based on a thorough analysis of documented complaints and be vetted at a public participation meeting prior to implementation. Before instituting such measures, the public and the Board should be apprised of the methodology for how the proposed software constructs the blocking list, and how library staff and patrons may alter it.
· Patron complaints should generally be subject to the existing policies on collections, patron behavior, and computer usage.
· Staff should be requested to evaluate less restrictive measures such as rearranging the furniture, placing privacy screens on terminals, or clearing the content of terminals more frequently.
I hope that these suggestions are useful, as I believe they are sufficient to provide the quality of service in an appropriate environment that LPL strives to deliver to all of its patrons. I look forward to speaking with you on June 20th. Please do not hesitate to contact me in advance if you have any additional questions or concerns I might address.
Samuel E. Trosow, Associate Professor
University of Western Ontario
Faculty of Information & Media Studies / Faculty of Law