Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 11: September 2006

The Censorware Chronicles

Another year, another pitiful little Censorware Chronicles. I’m not covering DOPA (the idiotic, overbroad Deleting Online Predators Act, which threatens to eliminate a huge swath of contemporary web software in some libraries) because it’s been covered well elsewhere. I just want to call two items to your attention. Both are worth reading. One is worth requesting in hardcopy.

Seth Finkelstein posted “10 things you might not know about censorware” on Google blogoscoped as part of a blog swap (Philipp Lenssen posted “10 things you might not know about Google” on Infothought). You’ll find it at Among other things briefly explained in this six-page essay, Finkelstein notes that “Censorware isn’t just for kids,” programmers have been sued for reverse engineering censorware and publishing the results, censorware tends to block lots of innocent web stuff (language translation sites, Google cache) because these sites can act as “loopholes,” and—amusingly—“Censorware sex blacklists are overall very boring.” Definitely worth a read.

Then there’s Internet filters: A public policy report, second edition, by Marjorie Heins, Christina Cho and Ariel Feldman. It’s published by the Brennan Center for Justice as part of the Free Expression Policy Project. You can download it from or request a printed copy from In printed form, it’s an 80-page 7x10" paperback.

When the first edition of this report came out in fall 2001 (from the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Ariel Feldman wasn’t one of the authors), I gave it a mixed review (in Cites & Insights 1:13, December 2001). Not for the content—that was great, providing “solid evidence for librarians and other mainstream Americans” that censorware massively overblocked (which continues to be the case). At the time, CIPA was still in the courts; unfortunately, it’s now law. My criticism was primarily aesthetic: the report was “entirely in ugly sans serif.”

They’ve fixed that. The printed report is an attractive, readable serif type, although FEPP could still use help from a print-oriented publication designer (paragraphs following headings shouldn’t be indented, and it’s generally not good practice to have both paragraph indentations and extra white space between paragraphs).

That’s the criticism. It’s a well-organized, well-written, factually rich report that demonstrates anew that, as the executive summary concludes,

[T]he 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.

Those libraries that accept e-rate discounts are stuck with CIPA. Some go well beyond the gutted version of CIPA that survived Supreme Court review, either deliberately or because they don’t provide clear, easy, well-publicized ways for adults to gain access to the whole web, not just what some program would guide them to (or away from). Is it worth it?

I marked lots of examples in the report—a site on fly fishing that Bess identifies as pornography (also sites on allergies and against the death penalty); issues of “living with CIPA”; filtering studies since the first edition; and more. Pages 45-72 detail research done since the first edition. It’s not a pretty picture.

I’m not going to include those examples (other than those already noted). You should read them in context. The report is well written, easy to read (my quibbles regarding design are just that: quibbles), and something every librarian should think about.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 11, Whole Issue 81, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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