Pornography and Internet Filters
By Grayson Barber
Hat tip: Martin Gomez, LA Public Library
Recently the Los Angeles Times published two editorials on the presence of pornography in libraries. Ordinarily, one might expect a leading newspaper to take a hard First Amendment line, upholding the right of library customers to read anything in a library so long as it is legal. Instead, the Times described libraries walking “a tightrope." The editorials acknowledged the deep discomfort many of us feel when we are inadvertently exposed to unwanted pornographic images.
Oddly, though, when a man was accused of masturbating in a public library, the response didn’t focus on his behavior – it emphasized the dirty pictures on the Internet!
Libraries are committed to providing a safe environment for all library users. But libraries are public buildings. It is impossible to guarantee that an individual will not read or see something which they may personally find objectionable.
Images that are acceptable in tabloids and magazines may be disturbing on a computer screen at a public library. Offensive as these images may be, they are not pornography, much less obscene. But they create difficulties for libraries, especially when they are asked to limit what people can see on computer screens.
Libraries should not be forced to install filtering software on their computers, for several reasons. State and local legislators should consider the following questions:
1. What is the scope of the problem? Last year, there were millions of visits to libraries. Of those millions, how many involved pornography?
2. Does the proposed remedy provide an effective cure? Unfortunately, no technology currently exists that would be guaranteed to perform perfectly. Inevitably, there are websites that will get through, with content that will be objectionable to someone. Worse, Internet filters prevent access to information that is legal and often desirable.
3. Are better solutions available? Librarians are committed to researching and adopting solutions that will provide patrons with the information they seek, and reduce exposure to unwanted content. For example, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) recently approved a new high-level domain ".xxx" for pornography sites. It would be better to take advantage of advances in technology instead of mandating filtering software.
4. In public libraries, do Internet filters become a form of censorship? Libraries generally exist for the purpose of helping people gain access to information, whereas filters exist for the purpose of preventing access to information. Libraries prefer to use their budgets for the purpose of acquiring materials, not for the purpose of blocking content. Libraries would prefer to give their customers wide open access to the web, so that customers can use their own judgment (as opposed to the library’s, or the software developer’s) about what is and is not suitable to read.
5. Do libraries risk overruling the judgment of parents as to the reading habits of children? Generally, librarians want parents to guide children, as opposed to substituting the public library’s (or the software developer’s) judgment as to what is suitable. We believe the best practice is to extend to minors the maximum allowable confidentiality and privacy protections, by respecting and protecting the rights of minors to choose their own library materials, to the fullest extent permitted by law.
6. Are there more cost effective ways to address the concerns reflected in the proposed legislation? Filtering software can be costly -- not only to purchase, but to update and upgrade. In order to maintain filters, staff time must be devoted to add or delete websites that are blocked. Options that are more economical may be available such as installing privacy screens, or even simply rearranging furniture to adjust sight lines.
Our goal should be to teach children and empower Internet users of all ages to control their online experience. To that end, libraries urge legislatures not to mandate Internet filtering, but to support effort to help library customers get access to all of the legal information they seek.