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Issue № 104

Down By Law

by Published in Business, Industry

A library’s core mission is to provide free and full access to a world of ideas.  The most exciting thing to happen in libraries in the last decade has been to see that mission extended to include access to the Internet. New library services, funded by generous federal support, have made more Internet access available to more and more people. Now, those same sources may force public libraries to censor Internet access.

Censorship and poverty

A new law sponsored by Senator John McCain is scheduled to go into effect this month. This law is paved with good intentions but its consequences will be dire.  By constricting the intellectual freedom and access to information guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, this legislation will punish the poorest of the poor.

Public institutions like libraries offer the only point of Internet access for many poor and minority Americans. The new law will force public libraries to censor the web via filtering software or lose their funding. If libraries reject the law, their budgets will shrink, seriously curtailing their ability to provide any Internet access whatsoever. If they accept the law, they will be embracing censorship that is antithetical to a public library’s core mission. It’s a Sophie’s Choice.

A lose-lose proposition

The legislation is designed to protect children from pornography.  No one can argue with the decency of that intention. But while this clumsy attempt may or may not succeed in protecting children, it is certain to undermine adult readers’ intellectual freedom.

This choice between censoring web access or losing funding is made even more painful by the fact that filtering software is widely acknowledged to be seriously flawed, often blacklisting useful, intelligent sites instead of simply blocking access to pornography.

But regardless of the flaws of existing filtering software programs, the real problem is that filters censor. When censorship software is in place, those who depend entirely upon libraries for Internet access will be stuck in a constricted world of ideas and discourse.

The law is an ass

On December 20th, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and the Neighborhood Internet Protection   Act (NCIPA) into law. This new federal law was cobbled together hastily   and attached to a larger spending bill (H.R. 4577). If it takes effect on April   20th, as it is scheduled to, libraries and schools that receive certain forms   of federal funding must begin to implement “Internet safety policies.” Implementation of these policies will be gradual, and will culminate with Internet filtering.

Two federal funding sources will send libraries down the censorship path.  The first is the Library Services in Technology Act Grant Program (LSTA), an initiative that funds some of the most progressive work taking place in the field of librarianship.

The second funding source is the Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries, or E-rate Discounts Program, that has connected thousands of schools and libraries to the Internet by providing lower-priced telecommunications and Internet access services.

These two sources of funding, designed to open a larger world of reading to a new audience, may now be the mechanism used to make that world smaller.

No one wants children to be exposed to harmful content, but this law has implications for all people who access the web from libraries and schools, and those implications are harmful.

How the law sidesteps freedom of speech

In an attempt to avoid the free speech problems that previous legislation has faced, the language in the new law is carefully worded.  Filters, as such, are not named but “technological protection measures” are.  The law does not elaborate on what these measures are.

In another piece of linguistic maneuvering, the law requires that these protection measures block “visual depictions,” not words.  This way, the law does not technically limit speech.

How filters fail

It is easy to focus on how flawed Internet filters are; anyone can generate   a list of good sites that are blocked by filters. One shining example is Jeffrey Pollock’s Congressional Campaign site. Pollock, an Oregonian Republican who   supported filtering legislation and wrote about that topic on his congressional   campaign site, found that Cyber Patrol blocked his site because it shared a   server with a pornography site. Besides being deliciously ironic, this is a clear example of how random   filtering can be.

Then we have more targeted blocking that results from keyword   filtering. This very site, for example, was blocked for using the phrase   “topless dancing” metaphorically.

These stories are important, compelling and scary. They also make great copy.  They are the least threatening portion of a two-part problem, and they are being addressed by software producers.

Why even “good” filters are bad news

When Crystal Roberts, a Legal Policy Analyst At the Family Research Council, gives an interview on CIPA, she can sell the idea that the software is getting better. SurfControl, the maker of Cyber   Patrol, has promised that the next release of the software will correct the   particular problem that caused Pollock’s site to be blocked.

Since the new law requires that filtering software be installed eventually but not immediately, it is reasonable to hope that by the time libraries and schools are actually required to install the stuff, the software will have improved. Let’s assume that when the time comes, libraries will have access to a product that will:

  • Be sophisticated and far more accurate.
  • Disclose its list of blocked sites and keywords.
  • Be open so that libraries will be able to create customized lists of blocked sites.
  • Be free of cultural and political biases.

As libraries become a big new market, we will demand a better product and we will get it.

Would that make filtering okay?  Uh-uh. We still face the second and more threatening problem: if libraries are forced to filter, some agent will still be responsible for a list of blocked sites, words or images.  That agent, whether human or machine, will be a censor. Library users will be subject to censorship.

For the many librarians who entered the profession because they are driven by a commitment to intellectual freedom, the idea that this law will impose censorship is enough to raise grave concerns about the future of public library service.

Confessions of an intellectual freedom fighter

My first public library job was at The New York Public Library in the famous beaux arts building at 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. The place was grand, but what made me want to work there was the collection. A copy of The Gutenberg Bible, a first edition of The Little Engine that Could, and an almost complete run of Screw magazine – an entire world of reading – awaited any visitor.

I worked in the Rose Main Reading Room, helping readers use our twenty-four Internet PCs.  This was 1998, and a new generation of easy-to-use GUI interfaces was making more information easier to access.

A class menagerie

Mine was not an easy job. Let’s Go: The Budget Guide to New York City had announced that anyone could check email for free in the very room where I worked.  While some days I got to teach senior citizens how to use a mouse, or to show new Americans how to search for job listings on the web, a good deal of my time was spent preventing fistfights between email-deprived tourists and urban teens wanting to chat or play games.

Sometimes I dismissed the work as unprofessional, unrewarding and potentially dangerous. Other times I felt a chill run up my spine over the fact that anyone could use our Internet connection and that we were there not only to help, but also to protect privacy. Like the reader’s activities or not, they were there to exercise their intellectual freedom.

Changing lives

After a little more than a year in the Reading Room, I moved into web development. One of the first projects I worked on was Writer’s Voices, an online journal of writings of adult literacy students at   The New York Public Library.

My colleagues in community outreach had designed the project and written a good grant proposal.  They secured funds from the Library Services in Technology Act (LSTA) Grant Program, the very funding source that now subjects us to the new filtering law.

Where my previous job had given me chills, this one was making me misty. People who once could not even read were now authoring stories and publishing them on the web.

Closing the digital divide

My personal anecdotes are instances of a more general phenomenon.  There are studies that suggest that libraries are often the primary or sole means of Internet access for certain populations and therefore key players in any effort to close the digital divide.

The phrase “digital divide” initially referred to PC ownership.  It was a term used to point out the fact that while computer ownership was generally increasing, this increase was limited to certain ethnic groups with particular economic means in limited geographic areas.  As the use of the term evolves, a better definition begins to include those who are more generally cut off from information.  A more up-to-date definition would include the idea that lack of access and lack of training are barriers to information wealth.

A National Telecommunications and Information Administration study found that:

...schools, libraries, and other public access points continue to serve   those groups that do not have access at home. For example, certain groups, such   as the unemployed, Blacks, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, are more   likely to use public libraries to access the Internet. (NITA. Falling Through   the Net, Toward Digital Inclusion. (October 2000: Accessed: April1, 2001. http://search.ntia.doc.gov/pdf/fttn00.pdf)

In fact, in my city, libraries are the primary place where one can find free access to the Internet.

Professor David Birdsell, Executive Director of Academic Programs School of Public Affairs, Baruch College, found in his 1999 study that libraries accounted for 98% of New York City computers accessible to the public without fee, course registration, institutional membership, or other restriction. In that year, only 54 open-access computers were situated outside of public libraries.  The report of his study, funded by the Pricewaterhouse Coopers Endowment for the Business of Government, is forthcoming.

Libraries are closing the information gap. That is why we started Writer’s Voices. That is why programs like the Library Services in Technology Act Grant Program and the E-rate discount program exist.  Now the very tools created to close the digital divide will be used to widen the gap between the information-rich and the information-poor.

Exceptions dumber than the rules

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this legislation is the discretion that libraries will have to temporarily disable Internet filters. While all Internet workstations will need to be filtered, schools and libraries held to CIPA will have the option to turn filtering off “to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” What are these purposes? The law does not say.

“Hey, lady! You doing bona fide research, or looking for smut?”

The idea of probing a reader to determine if her research is bona fide or lawful is as abhorrent to me as eating anything but fish on Friday would have been to my great-grandmother.

When I think about a member of the public brave enough to approach a librarian to request unfiltered access, I have to make two educated assumptions about that person.  The first assumption is that she knows the law; this knowledge indicates a certain amount of information wealth.  The second assumption is that she knows libraries and is comfortable in them; this too would indicate possession of information wealth.  I fear that the information-poor will be the least likely people to ask librarians to turn off Internet filters, and will therefore suffer the most from this legislation.

What happens next?

April 20th will be an important day in the evolution of this story. That is the date on which the FCC is required to publish a list of criteria for compliance.

Earlier this month, the American Library Association filed suit to overturn CIPA. Some state library associations have adopted resolutions supporting the American Library challenge.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also filed suit, and some content providers have joined this effort.  Remember our Oregonian friend, Mr. Pollock? He is among those content providers.

The contention behind these suits is that the law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The flow of information is necessary to any free society, and libraries are a key mechanism in that flow. It’s important to protect children from harmful subject matter, but clumsy, half-baked measures will not achieve that goal – they will only succeed in sacrificing the First Amendment.  If libraries are forced to filter Internet access, the cost will be intellectual freedom.

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