Internet Filtering in Libraries

Assignment 7, by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 693, Summer 2001, taught by Dr. Rebecca Knuth

There are a number of points put forward by the ALA and other groups opposed to filtering Internet access in libraries.

The most important point is that filters restrict access to Internet content. This is antithetical to the goals of free access in libraries. The objection that filtering the Internet is similar to maintaining a selection policy does not hold. This is because libraries and their selection policies should be inclusive, not exclusive. If libraries had unlimited funds, it would be possible for their selection policy to include all works. Selection is not based on content; instead, such aspects as the popularity of the work, its physical quality or durability, its reviews, its sales, or how it will balance the total collection are considered. Filtering, on the other hand, is based solely on the content of web pages.

On a practical level, filters are a faulty tool. They frequently filter out acceptable sources while letting many objectionable sites through. And it seems unlikely that they will greatly improve in the near future, since they are based mainly on natural language or keywords. Perhaps if other technologies were implemented, such as PICS or another type of web site rating system, filtering could be a viable alternative. As they stand now, they only provide a false sense of security.

Even if filters performed flawlessly, their implementation prohibits free speech. Court cases have maintained that Internet sources deserve the same protection as books, magazines, and public speaking. As such, filtering is censorship. Even in the interest of protecting children, all library Internet access can not be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Filtering only children's stations violates ALA policy against denying access to persons based on age.

What seems like a better alternative to filtering is education, supervision, and policy. For long-term benefits, minors need to learn what the Internet contains, how to evaluate people and sources online, and how to detour around (or at least quickly pass over) those sites that are harmful or misleading. To this end, critical literacy workshops at the library or classes at school can help. Also, a parent's supervision is the most accurate filter for removing those materials that they deem harmful to their children. Libraries should have an acceptable Internet use policy that applies to everyone equally. It should likely prohibit illegal use, such as viewing child pornography, obscenity, works legally determined to be "harmful to minors," etc. And of course libraries can always be inclusive and positive by providing links to recommended sites they recommend for children.

Because they violate the purpose of library, because they are unreliable, and because they restrict Constitutionally-protected free speech, Internet filters do not belong in libraries.