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

Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 11: October 2005

The Censorware Chronicles

It’s been more than a year since the last censorware roundup—mostly because not a lot has happened since the first round of post-CIPA articles and discussions. In some ways, that’s unfortunate: Censorware still doesn’t work—but librarians are living with it and patrons presumably just go somewhere else for the sites blocked by the software.

Ø    On July 17, 2004, Mary Minow posted an essay at LibraryLaw Blog urging public libraries not to block violent sites. “There are no public libraries filtering violent websites that have been sued that I know of. Don’t be the first.” Apparently librarians have asked Mary whether CIPA means they must block violent websites—but, you know, unlike evil sex, violence doesn’t seem to be harmful to children. “I believe a policy or practice blocking violent sites in a public library is likely to attract a lawsuit by a civil liberties group, and I think the library would lose.” I agree with Mary’s take on this: “Do I want kids to see gruesome violence? No. Do I want the state defining and enforcing what kids can and cannot see? Again, no.”

Ø    An August 23, 2004 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story, when CIPA-required filters were still newsworthy, pointed out that censorware was disrupting “hundreds of routine searches” in public libraries. It starts with a search for (a gas-price tracking site) resulting in a “sex site” block from censorware. A tween patron searched for The Westing Game—that search was blocked for the same reason. Mt. Lebanon’s library director said patrons and librarians both found the situation frustrating, with access blocked to “at least 25 commonly used Web sites” dealing with such obscenity as pensions, arts and crafts, and Villanova University. The article also quoted the “family values” people: Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition said, “The American Library Association is quite sinister.”

Ø    A similar story appeared in the Daily Herald (for suburban Chicago) on September 13, 2004, headlined “Technically speaking, Web filters working.” The story notes library attempts to find appropriate compromises—and Indian Trails director Trejo Meehan noted one problem with censorware: “If you filter, you’re assuring everybody that you can’t find anything inappropriate on our computers. There’s no filter software out there that can do what it really promises to do.” A Websense employee admitted that “image filtering” software—at least theirs—only blocks based on URLs and text, not on the content of the artwork. After all, attempting to classify images might block Boticelli paintings “because [they show] so much skin.” “It’s extremely difficult to classify a particular image just by looking at it… Whereas, if you look at a Web site, it has lots of images and words. It’s fairly easy to classify.” Easy, that is, when you’re not held accountable for inaccurate results.

Ø    When ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom took a quick survey of 71 libraries in the late summer of 2004, they found “most are willing to turn off the filter quickly when asked by adults,” according to Judith Krug as quoted in an LJ item. There are exceptions: One patron called saying that the librarian told him, “You have to tell me why you want me to disable the filter” and said the request would go to a once-a-month committee. Krug confirmed this: The library said, “That’s our policy.” It’s also a great basis for an as-applied challenge to CIPA—except that the suit would be against the library, not CIPA, since other libraries are unblocking instantly.

Ø    Sometimes librarians can’t follow CIPA’s guidance without violating local ordinances. An October 1, 2004 story says that Phoenix’ city council voted unanimously “not to allow adults to turn off the library’s Internet filter.” ACLU of Arizona said it was ready to take it to court; I haven’t heard anything since.

Ø    This March, Utah’s government got into the porn-list business. The state legislature passed a bill “aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography” (but drawn so broadly that it’s almost certainly open to challenge). Part of the law is an “Adult content registry” and—as Seth Finkelstein pointed out at Infothought—the list is to be made “available for public dissemination” in an age-restricted but non-encrypted manner. “Your tax dollars at…work?”

Ø    Some of us hoped a CIPA as-applied challenge would arise in Rhode Island after ACLU of Rhode Island released “Reader’s block,” an 18-page report on their study of the state’s public libraries. The report notes that some libraries are blocking categories such as “gambling” and “illegal,” that the minimum statewide blocking level considerably exceeds CIPA requirements, that some libraries don’t really inform patrons that they can request unblocking (although others do an excellent job in this regard), and that the biggest public library in the state routinely denies adults access to blocked material. While the report caused a flurry of blog posts and other responses and apparently caused some Rhode Island libraries to make unblocking easier, ACLU did not mount an as-applied challenge.

Ø    Then there’s the recent Nitke v. Ashcroft decision. This one’s convoluted enough that you’re better off going straight to Infothought, since Seth Finkelstein was an expert witness and has links to various resources. (Look for July archives.) The case has to do with CDA (Communications Decency Act), yet another “decency” act. The court agreed that the act was chilling protected speech—but ruled that the plaintiff hadn’t “met the burden of proof” because she couldn’t prove how much speech was being chilled. This is an astonishing new rule: It’s OK for legislators to take some of your Constitutional rights, if you can’t prove they’ve taken too much. The decision also involves “community standards” and jurisdiction-shopping: The government can choose any venue to prosecute Internet-based speech, looking for a “community” that will find its “standards” violated. The decision will be appealed. Meanwhile, the blog entry or internet essay you write in Berkeley, Austin or Madison may be judged by the community standards of the most right-wing community in the nation.

That’s it. A hodgepodge of troublesome items, mostly chipping away at freedom of speech and expression bit by tiny bit.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 11, Whole Issue 67, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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