I was surfing the internet searching websites of public libraries in the United States and the operating rules of internet access in those institutions (1). First, I must admit that there is more information online about it than I had initially expected to find.

Second, it should be noted that in almost all the reviewed websites I found an explicit mention of the current legal and regulatory framework for access to information on the internet in public libraries of the United States, such as the CDA (Communications Decency Act) of 1996, the COPA (Child Online Protection Act) of 1998 and the CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act) of 2000.

I read quite a lot and as I started to read over and over the arguments about why the "harmful" content had to be filtered for users under 17 in public libraries, more questions started to arise.

Relying on the valuable findings of the report: Youth and Sexuality by the US EroTICs research team, I realized that I was able to answer several of the questions that occurred to me from the reading of the provisions on access to information on the internet at public libraries in the US. Or rather, I could rely on the US report of the EroTICs research to answer the FAQ about internet filtering published by the Denver Public Library.

I will try to facilitate a meeting, some sort of dialogue between one of the texts that I selected from the internet and the EroTICs research in the United States.

It should be noted that the text "Internet Filtering FAQ" is not fictional and it is available in the website of the Denver Public Library: http://denverlibrary.org/content/internet-filtering-faq. Everything that is written in italic are actually fragments selected from the US EroTICs report to discuss, answer and question the initial text of the Denver library.

Now, I officially start the fictional intertextual dialogue:

Internet Filtering FAQ

The Denver Public Library values free and equal access to information, even when that information may be controversial, unorthodox or unacceptable to others. With its implementation of filtering software, the Denver Public Library balances its commitment to customers’ diverse interests and individual rights with the need to provide a welcoming and comfortable environment for all ages.

EroTICs: “During the time since the EroTICs project was announced, the US and global economies have contracted. Greater numbers of people are now dependent on shared access to the internet through public libraries.

These “new library internet users” may be people whose familiarity with information technology is limited for reasons related to age, level of education, economic status or other factors. They do not have the same facility as younger users at avoiding the roadblocks placed in their way in the form of electronic filters and other access restrictions.

The potential for creating a “digital divide” is considerable. On the one hand, there are people who control their own internet access and enjoy essentially unrestricted access to information. On the other, there are those who are dependent on others and whose access is limited by technical solutions set in place in response to vaguely worded legislation proposed in the name of protecting children.

For these electronically disenfranchised users, there is the risk that reduced access to information will deepen their marginalization and make it harder for them to keep pace with people fortunate enough to enjoy unhindered access.

Unfortunately, our study has revealed that the situation with respect to access to information is arbitrary and confusing. It is difficult to say with certainty what information will or will not be available at any given location. The factors that influence access are obscure, and those responsible for making decisions are hard to identify and often unaccountable for the choices that they make.

Access to information is not necessarily in the hands of the individual no matter the individual’s age. Instead, it may be determined by others—library committees, software developers, interest groups and other third parties. These are, or should be, issues of concern for everyone. The benefits that the internet can bring are considerable, but those benefits can be outweighed by issues of uncertainty and unequal access. It is very difficult to restrict information with any level of accuracy and overblocking is common. We’ve seen that restricting information for people under 17 and 18 years of age has effectively restricted information for adults. Therefore, we recommend that online information about sexuality be made more widely available to people using publicly funded computers in the United States.”

Why do Denver Public Library computers have filtering software?

Denver Public Library: Colorado’s 2004 Internet Protection in Public Libraries (C.R.S. 24-90-601) law mandates Internet access be filtered for customers under the age of 17. It requires that public libraries adopt and enforce reasonable policies of internet safety that are consistent with the federal “Children's Internet Protection Act,” as amended, (P.L. No. 106-554 - PDF). In addition, we feel that accessing pornography in a public place is inconsistent with the welcoming and comfortable environment we seek to provide.

EroTICs: “CIPA defines the term “minor” as “an individual who has not attained the age of 17” (CIPA 2000: 5). A provision in the CIPA legislation allows for the disabling of filters by adult users under the conditions of “enabling access to bona fide research or other lawful purposes” (CIPA 2000: 7). (…)

The law is not without its problems. In particular, the definition of “harmful to minors” is similar to obscenity laws, which are subjective in nature and depend on context. CIPA (2000) provides this definition:

(2)HARMFUL TO MINORS—The term “harmful to minors” means any picture, image, graphic image file, or other visual depiction that—

(A) taken as a whole and with respect to minors, appeals to a prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion;

(B) depicts, describes, or represents, in a patently offensive way with respect to what is suitable for minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual acts, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals; and

(C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to minors.

The notion of “harmful to minors” is itself problematic. Judith Levine (2003) makes the case that restricting access to information, particularly about sex (the most commonly-restricted topic) is what is actually harmful to minors because lack of information renders them ill-prepared to face sexual experiences.”

How does Denver Public Library’s filtering software work?

Denver Public Library: The filtering software blocks sites that depict pornography, child pornography or obscenity.

EroTICs: “The US legislation that we have discussed was motivated by a perceived need to “protect” young people—the word “protect” appears in the titles of both COPA (Child Online Protection Act), and CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act)- from the potential harm caused by exposure to pornographic material or material considered indecent available online; although no consensus on what material is actually indecent for minors has been established (Sobel 2003).

The same discourse, about the necessity of protection, is used to sell software specifically targeted at youth. Some of these software packages predate formal legislative attempts to address the problem on the national level; several of the systems used in libraries today evolved from packages originally sold to parents for use in the home.”

Who decides which sites should be blocked?

Denver Public Library: In conjunction with Library staff, the filtering software vendor uses a process combining technological and human review to make decisions about which sites are blocked.

EroTICs: “Fallibility is only one problem with filtering software. A second has to do with the design of the filter sets. A filter may match just as its author intended, but the author’s intentions may be different from the expectations or wishes of the purchaser or user of the software. A library that buys filtering software to block pornography may not be aware that the software developer has chosen to include “controversial” topics such as abortion or homosexuality under the heading of offensive content. Personal or political biases may be expressed in the decisions made by the developers of filtering software. (…)

The question that arises is one of transparency and accountability. When anyone—librarians, administrators, software developers, individual zealots, pressure groups—can determine what can and cannot be seen, the whole system becomes worryingly arbitrary. As Harriett Selverstone observed, some of these decision makers may lack the necessary understanding to make an informed decision, while others may explicitly seek to impose a particular value system through the choices they made. (…)

One final possibility is that no one makes the decision at all. Software bugs may cause filters to fail or to over-match, without any checks and balances beyond corporate response to user comments, which depends upon users realizing what is happening and commenting. Filter rules may interact with each other in arbitrary and unexpected ways. When all these different influences are taken together, it can be extremely hard to predict what will or will not be blocked, or to work out why the filtering software yielded the results that it did.”

Will children be safer using filtered Internet access?

Denver Public Library: That is the goal. However, no filtering software is totally accurate, nor is it a substitute for parental judgement and oversight. The Denver Public Library believes that the reading and viewing activity of children is ultimately the responsibility of parents who guide and oversee their own children's development. The Denver Public Library does not intrude on that relationship, except when mandated by law.

Children are encouraged to use Denver Public Library’s Secret Wonder Web, which provides guided access to content specially created and selected for children.

EroTICs: “Our findings demonstrate that filtering is a hard problem. Anyone who has used a search engine such as Google has probably had the experience of typing in a particular keyword and getting back a large number of unrelated results. Filters face the same problem. Many words or phrases do not unambiguously identify concepts, posing a severe problem for keyword-based filters, but more sophisticated filters can also fall into similar traps. Additionally, blocking specific terms or combinations of letters also has pitfalls. (…)

Restricting access to information about birth control sounds risible to most 21st century Americans. However, that is exactly what was done in the past and is happening today as information about sexuality is limited for schoolchildren including adolescents (Jones & Biddlecom 2011). The shared agenda (…) is promoting procreative sex within marriage. This is why the same actors have worked to limit school-based sex education to “abstinence only” education as have advocated for these limits on internet-based information in federally funded institutions.”

Will objectionable material based on hate or violence be blocked?

Denver Public Library: No. The filtering software is designed to block content that is pornographic or obscene in nature.

Author's note: Again... what do we mean by pornographic or obscene material? And I say, there is no question about the exposure to violence or hate? This is not a minor detail when you consider that in America a child will have witnessed an average of about 100,000 violent acts and 8,000 murders by the time he or she finishes the primary school. With this criteria, a young internet user in the Denver Public Library will have access to a video starring a woman being brutally beaten and raped but probably will not get access to information on social organizations working in the field of sexual violence.

Will information on health and sexuality be blocked?

Denver Public Library:The filtering software is designed to block images and videos that depict pornography, child pornography or obscenity, not medical information or images. However, there may be instances where information has been inappropriately blocked.

If this happens, please complete the Request for Reconsideration of Access to a Web Site form. Denver Public Library staff will evaluate the request and if deemed appropriate, will forward the site to the filtering software vendor for unblocking. The customer will then be notified of the decision within two weeks.

EroTICs: (…) “protecting” adolescents and classifying information about sexuality as “harmful to minors” is detrimental in that it promotes misinformation, politicizes phenomena that are inherent in human development, and is associated with teen pregnancy and infection. Earlier eras demonstrated that efforts to “protect” women restricted their movement, deprived them of critical information, and led to the arrest and incarceration of women for things that are now linked to normal dating and sexuality -- like travel to visit intimate partners and learning about and using family planning methods. (…)

American adolescents are currently subjected to similar risks both legal and physical, in the form of prosecution for “sexting” and other use of new technologies in sexual experimentation, and sexually transmitted infections. (…)

Restrictions implemented to prevent minors having access to sexual information are implemented in varying ways across the United States. Methods used include blocking particular websites, blocking particular words in internet searches, using commercially marketed content filters, and requiring users to agree to terms of services including not seeking inappropriate material.

Terms and sites blocked seemed unpredictable and included instances of overblocking, or denying access to information that is clearly not “harmful to minors,” for example, including websites of service organizations. In many instances, access to information was restricted for all users and not merely people under 17 or 18 years of age. Depending on the library nearest you, you might find that information was free or that it was not possible to learn about the symptoms of anal cancer or the lawyers at the Sex Workers Project.”

Does the Denver Public Library filter social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and blogs?

Denver Public Library: No. Popular social networking sites, including MySpace, allow users to share photos and detailed profiles of their likes and dislikes. Other social network sites include Facebook, geared to college students, LinkedIn, aimed at professionals, and Xanga, a blog-based community site. In all, an estimated 300 sites make up the social network universe.

The Denver Public Library does not filter these sites because they cannot be reliably reviewed by filtering software, and because blocking these sites completely would unnecessarily block vast amounts of inoffensive materials. The content of social networking sites has not been found to meet the Library’s criteria for filtering. Most site vendors have policies regarding appropriate use and display of content and most users abide by the policies.

Parents are encouraged to explore the Internet with their children, supervise them, provide clear guidelines regarding what sites and activities are off-limits and teach their children safety rules for dealing with strangers online.

EroTICs: “We earlier asked the question: “Who decides what information we may see?” The converse of this question is “Who decides what information we will reveal?”. The best protection of rights is not the restriction of content but protection of the right to privacy, including online privacy. This means online safety, and the ability to use the internet anonymously, in order for internet users to exercise their rights.

However, surveillance and control software targeted at young people answers this question differently: The principle behind such software is that, for young people at least, parents and guardians should be the ones to manage and control what young users are able to reveal about themselves. However, a better solution would be to create an online environment in which real privacy is offered to all and information about protecting one’s privacy would be easily available and easily implemented by internet users.”

How can customers request that a site be permanently blocked or unblocked?

Denver Public Library: Customers may complete and submit a Request for Reconsideration of Access to a Web Site form. Denver Public Library staff will evaluate the request and if deemed appropriate, will forward the site to the filtering software vendor for unblocking. The customer will then be notified of the decision within two weeks.

EroTICs: “Perhaps the most significant objection to filtering is that it removes the possibility of choice. Harriett Selverstone observed, “Websites filtering, they’re all very finite. They don’t think for themselves. They are positioned to eliminate the opportunity for people. It removes the exposure for a lot of people to see what information is out there or ‘How can I really access information?’”

In some cases, it appeared that individuals could request that a particular site may be blocked. This is also cause for concern, because it introduces a new decision-maker into the process, one who can use the request mechanism as a way to impose their own values on other users. Requests of this kind may reflect personal concerns, but individuals may also act as agents of an interest group, submitting requests that reflect the group’s agenda. There is little doubt that groups such as the Family Research Council would be happy to draw up a list of banned sites and so impose their particular values on library users. Liberal groups, of course, might do the same.”

Can the filters be turned off?

Denver Public Library: The filters on computers in the Community Technology Center (CTC) at the Central Library can be turned off by CTC staff. The filter will be disabled only if the blocked site is appropriate for viewing in a public space. In addition, each of the following branches has one computer with unfiltered access to the Internet: Bear Valley, Ross-University Hills, Schlessman Family and Ross-Barnum.

Customers accessing the Internet on the unfiltered computers are subject to the requirements outlined in the Computer/Internet Policy.

EroTICs: “A further problem with filters is that they may often be by-passed (Sutton 2005). Young people – the main target of restrictive filtering – may in fact be the most technically adept at doing this. (…) Minors who are unable to access restricted content at school or at the library or even at home may be able to access the internet through their cell phone, an unfiltered platform. The heaviest impact of filters designed to protect children may thus fall on adult users, who find their access to information restricted by a technology that often fails to impede the main group at which it is targeted.”

Will customer laptops using DPL’s wireless Internet connections be filtered?

Denver Public Library: No. Filtering software is installed only on computers owned by the Library. Customers using our wireless connection are subject to the requirements outlined in our Computer/Internet Policy.

Note from the author: From the response above it is possible to discern that if you have your own laptop (which means you do probably have a regular internet connection at home) and already have enough knowledge about how to connect by yourself to the library’s wi-fi network without asking for the help of any library employee, you will not be a victim of internet filters. Those who will become victims of filtering indeed, once again, are those who have no other option. Warning: if you are poor, do not have a laptop and want to access a computer without filtering software on the Denver Public Library, I wish you good luck in the adventure of trying to get one of the 8 computers without internet filtering spread in 5 specific locations. And cross your fingers that they are not taken ;-)

Responses to this post

Thank you very much for your input. I really liked the idea - will take it as
a proposal - of making searches on sexual health to see what comes up - or
not in all places with public access. Your comment is so interesting that
could be a blog post by itself :D Wait to read the about to come out second
EroTICs edition!!

I am seldom in a US library, but ever since I learned about the EROTICS research, whenever I *am* in a place with supposed "public access" I always attempt to make searches on sexual health to see what comes up - or not. I am also curious about how filters affect multi-lingual access.

Who gets to decide what people can view (or post) is always a tough call. I for example do not report sexist or demeaning videos on youtube as inappropriate content but do do so when a video shows a clear violation of rights - ie, women being assaulted online including portrayal of the victim´s face.

I also have to admit that I agree personally with this statement of the Denver Public Library - "In addition, we feel that accessing pornography in a public place is inconsistent with the welcoming and comfortable environment we seek to provide." Having been in cybercafes where just to walk to your computer you see varied images of sex acts on your neighboring screens I have to agree that in my case, those cybercafes do not make me feel welcome or safe for me or my kid. But, everyone´s definition of pornography is different, and imposing one definition over another - and furthermore hoping that filtering software can understand one´s complex definitions - point to the need for solutions other than filtering.

At least in the case of the Denver Library system, it seems like they are caught between a rock and a hard place - having to comply with legislation that has a very narrow scope or at least a highly subjective one (and if they do not comply, being liable to lawsuits in sue-happy US) and that passion of librarians - access to knowledge and information. I read their computer/internet policy which governs general use, and noted that at least in their specially created "teens" site there is a section devoted to sexuality, sexual pleasure and health, specifically selected by staff (but just a snip of what is available on this subject and limited information about what to do if you are raped or a victim of incest). http://teens.denverlibrary.org/life/sex.html.

The computer policy also refers to keeping the privacy screens on the computers and erasing customer histories - if these two measures were employed consistently even on personal laptops the "welcoming" library concern would be addressed.

Thanks for providing a different entry point into the great research done on EROTICS - and to help us all build better arguments and understanding regarding the need for a free and accessible internet.

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