ALA Calls for an End to Mandatory Filters

5173731811_4bfe68274f_oThe American Library Association is no fan of restricting access to information. They believe in "the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment", and recently the ALA reiterated that philosophy when they took a position against content filters.

Many companies use filters on their own networks to control access to what their employees and customers can access online, but content filters are also often used by schools and libraries. The filters are used for a variety of reasons ranging from liability concerns to a desire to keep employees off of social networks, but in the case of libraries and schools filters are often installed in order to comply with federal regulation.

Institutions have to comply with CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act) in order to be eligible to receive funding or discounts through certain federal and state programs. They often rationalize the decision with the argument that it is better to have filtered access than no access.

The ALA disagrees, and in late June they took a position against filters. It comes down to the fact that filters censor all sorts of content for questionable reasons, and often fail to do their job properly:

Research demonstrates that filters consistently both over- and underblock the content they claim to filter. Filters often block adults and minors from access to a wide range of constitutionally protected speech. Content filters are unreliable because computer code and algorithms are still unable to adequately interpret, assess, and categorize the complexities of human communication whether expressed in text or image. In the case of websites containing sexually explicit images, the success rate of filters is frequently no greater than chance. In addition, the use of content filters cedes vital library and school resource and service decisions to external parties (private companies and contractors) who then exercise unknown and unaccountable influence over basic functions of the library or school and users' access to library or school resources and services. In addition to this research, the experience of librarians and educators working within the constraints of CIPA suggests that filters are unreliable and routinely circumvented by technologically adept users.

And it's not just that the filters don't work. Even when they are functioning properly, filters still cause harm by widening the gap between those who can afford to pay for personal access and those who must depend on publicly funded (and filtered) access.

And to top things off, many teachers have told me that in their experience filters are completely ineffective. Students are adept at bypassing filters, and the ones who don't yet know how learn the necessary skills quickly.

One could perhaps see that last as a silver lining, but it also raises questions about why schools should bother installing filters in the first place.

AlA via Boing Boing

image by Wootang01

About Nate Hoffelder (11591 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

3 Comments on ALA Calls for an End to Mandatory Filters

  1. I worked at a library that had a large open section of public access computers. The filters are needed because we had several cases of people coming in and downloading porn–and children as well as other adults were often walking by to get to other sections of the library. The librarians who had to work that section were also exposed to material that they did not want to have to see. They can and did block sites because they are supposed to.

    Co-workers were asked to print material that is not allowed to be printed in a public library, and they shouldn’t have to deal with that.

    I certainly didn’t want to have to deal with that sort of thing. I’m in favor of the filters. I saw one of the “photos” that was printed (the printer is behind the counter because patrons must pay for the printing to cover the cost of paper, etc) and honestly. Go somewhere else and print and watch that. Don’t do it in a public place where others might glance over. Don’t require people who have to work in that area to deal with it.

  2. I work at a public library that has filters on all computers. The law requires us to have the filters on staff computers (even those not in a public area), the catalog computers (which are blocked from accessing any other part of the ‘net), and the public internet computers. Most patrons don’t notice any problems with the filter the way we have it set, but stuff still gets through occasionally.

    My problem with mandatory filters is the law doesn’t provide funding for those filters. For libraries struggling to make ends meet (the recession isn’t over for everyone!!), the cost of the filter is heavy. But, if we don’t have the filter, we can’t afford internet service without the federal funding. So if we dropped the filters we would have to tell the public we no longer have internet access. I understand where ALA is coming from, and hope they can get that part of the law repealed, but I’m not holding my breath. And we won’t be getting rid of our filters until then.

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