Information Update - Fall 1999

Should Libraries Filter the Internet?

Software programs to prevent Internet users from accessing pornographic web sites or questionable newsgroups are rampant. Marketers of these products promise libraries a solution to problems they face when young patrons want to surf the web unattended. Filtering software programs and services work in a variety of ways. They can block certain types of content by using keyword and site blocking. Filters can also block by protocol or by time of day. Internet filters have a predefined list of allegedly objectionable words, phrases or letter combinations. Most blocked words are related to sexuality or human biology, but some even include words such as death or pain. In addition, there are words that have objectionable connotations in some countries and no such meaning in others. Letter combinations within otherwise topically unrelated words cause the web page to be blocked as well. When a stop word is encountered, most filters will do one of the following: stop the file in transfer from loading onto your machine; display the file but obscure the objectionable term; display some, but not all of the file; or shut down the browser or possibly even the computer.
The most common type of filtering program blocks by web site. This procedure excludes everything except a list of acceptable sites. Automated tools search the Internet for new files, then flag sites which have common content. Humans then review each of these flagged web pages and place them into access or denial lists. The sites are then grouped into categories that can be selected or deselected to customize the software to the user's specific needs. Site blocking can be more reliable than word or term blocking, but it still has some problems. Sites are added at a tremendous rate, and it is virtually impossible to review all additions comprehensively. Some sites contain a variety of materials, some of which are objectionable and some not. An initial scan of a site may sanction a site that is, when further researched, questionable at best. No filter is foolproof. There is always the possibility that valuable information is blocked along with the "indecent" material. la is not always transparent as to what your filter is eliminating.
Where are challenges for libraries, which almost universally house at least one public access Internet terminal? is it the library's responsibility to filter the vast proliferation of information on the web so as not to offend a potential user? And if a filter is chosen, is that product slanted or subjective in excluding information that may be beneficial to a patron? Legal issues that have affected the library's right to provide information and the patron's right to access materials are currently being attacked with the Internet as a key focus. When the Supreme Court moved to uphold the principles of the First Amendment that were challenged by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, it concluded that communications on the Internet deserved the highest level of constitutional protection. This move by the Supreme Court has made filtering all public library workstations illegal. Some public libraries that have computers in children's departments have placed the filtering software on those workstations, or if there are multiple stations in the library, they have designated one for children. Other public libraries have formulated policies that require children under a certain age to be accompanied by an adult when using an Internet accessible workstation. Still others offer workshops or handouts for their young patrons that teach them about safe searching and show them some great sites.
Academic libraries are faced with different concerns regarding Internet usage. Because the average age of the patron in an academic library is eighteen plus years of age and because colleges and universities are founded on the principles of academic freedom, our libraries seek to provide unrestricted access to users searching for materials in either print or non-print formats. What has been the focus of concern, however, is the behavior associated with new forms of media, specifically the Internet. A patron sitting at a carrel reading a James Jones novel peppered with four-letter words and erotic plot lines could not be considered morally offensive to a nearby reader. But if two computer screens are side by side and a patron is viewing a pornographic web site, the question is much more complicated. The difference here is in the two processes invoked in retrieving "objectionable" materials. Given the design of most Internet public workstations: patrons accessing materials online are also displaying it where others may see it. Accessing is an issue of intellectual freedom, while displaying said materials to other patrons is a matter of behavior. Unless the patron has turned off the monitor and downloads the file onto a floppy disk to take home and view in privacy, there is little we can do to separate the access from the display. Some libraries are experimenting with privacy screen or privacy rooms (both options requiring added expense to already burgeoning technology costs). James Huff, a reference librarian at the Milner Library at Illinois State University, suggests an invention that would allow patrons the option of private viewing of the display, in the same way that headphones provide the option of private listening." (Huff, James. "Filtering Behavior lnstead of Speech." American Libraries 30 (4), 1999, p.38) This would allow access and display simultaneously and in private, therefore eliminating embarrassing or offensive situations at public terminals. Until such a device is developed and widely and inexpensively distributed, we must protect our patrons and engage in a form of censorship. The best way to do this is to devise an Internet use policy. At the University, the Code of Responsible Computing (1994) was developed to protect the campus network system from potential abuses. When scanning the document for possible application of the Code to a user viewing pornographic material on a screen located in a public area I was able to isolate one phrase which could be applied to such an infraction. In Part Two of the Code, under the paragraph beginning "Unauthorized use of a computing resource..." is a phrase that states "harassment of other users." This phrase could he used to allow a staff member of the Library to ask a patron to cease displaying a questionable screen if a patron sitting at a nearby workstation finds it offensive.
Filtering software may offer a temporary panacea for public libraries. But in the university setting, protecting the rights of individuals to access any and all information is a mandated responsibility of librarians. Using common sense and caution with each case and having as a backup the Code of Responsible Computing should help academic librarians in our quest to offer accessibility to all types of information while protecting the rights of patrons who choose not to be exposed to offensive materials.
Betsey Moylan
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition