Thursday, July 1st, 2010 at 12:03pm

The Library, the first amendment, and porn on public computers

Posted by Jordan Erickson

Library contentI recently read an article about a local library in my hometown that is currently dealing with Internet access from their public computer terminals. There are some very good arguments regarding unfettered/unfiltered Internet access (which aligns with First Amendment ideals) vs. content filtering and protecting children from offensive material.

This is a long standing topic that the American Library Association (ALA) has been dealing with and I sympathize with both sides of the issue. I strongly agree, as a computer/networking professional, that content filtering software is NOT 100% accurate (and never will be). The problem with it is that, even if it blocks most pornographic/offensive websites online, it is also very likely that it will block legitimate (unbeknown to the filtering software) sites, such as a website that gives information on breast cancer (or turkey breast sandwich recipes!). Filtering software will see the keywords and block the entire website, effectively limiting access to information on what many people call the biggest virtual library in the world. In fact, here’s an excerpt:

As articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the American Library Association case culminating in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Internet represents a vast library. It is a virtual library already present within any public library that selects Internet access. The fundamental First Amendment question is: given the free availability of a near-infinite range of content on the Internet, can the library ever deliberately deprive a library user of the constitutionally protected materials he or she seeks? The emphatic answer of the librarian informed by principles of intellectual freedom is: absolutely not.”

Of course, as a father, I understand and sympathize with other parents regarding their children and accessing unfiltered Internet resources. If you want to feel good about sending your kids to the library during Summer vacation, you want to know that they are in good hands and that they aren’t participating in questionable activities. You might have content filtering software installed on your computer at home, but if you know that the library does not provide this kind of system, you will take it into consideration when deciding whether or not to let them go. Of course, the question of what and who is ultimately responsible for your childrens’ actions comes into the forefront of the debate as well.

Public, government run libraries are in a very interesting situation. My personal suggestion would be this: Since you have to enter your library card number (in most cases) to use a library computer terminal, it knows who you are. If the user is a minor (not sure if they store this information on file though), and the parent asks the library to use content filtering for their child’s account, they can turn it on – and everyone else remains unfiltered. Of course, doing this takes time and resources, two things that libraries have very little of. On the other hand, it seems to strike a balance where choice (and parental responsibility) plays a key role in the decision of censoring information available to your children.

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