The 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.
image by Wootang01