Join 3,415 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


US v ALA
June 23, 2003 1:45 PM   Subscribe

The Children's Internet Protection Act is hunky dory, according to the Supreme Court. This means that public libraries are required by law to have web filters on public terminals. While it's great that children will now be forever protected from the evils on online pornography, the drawback is that most filters are so unreliable that just me mentioning the word "sex" in this post could get Metafilter blocked by a web filter.
posted by zedzebedia (39 comments total)

 
This is the part I like: "Moreover, the statute contains an important exception that limits the speech-related harm: It allows libraries to permit any adult patron access to an “overblocked” Web site or to disable the software filter entirely upon request." Thank you Supreme Court for giving overworked librarians yet another task.
posted by JanetLand at 1:55 PM on June 23, 2003


I believe this has been discussed as recently as 14 posts ago.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:59 PM on June 23, 2003


With all the stories about cock, breasts, fetish roadmaps and vintage erotica, the word sex is the least of our concern.
posted by mosch at 2:01 PM on June 23, 2003


Civ: that post dealt with the FBI, not child filters.
posted by mischief at 2:03 PM on June 23, 2003


This means that public libraries are required by law to have web filters on public terminals.
Not quite. The decision notes up front that libraries are only obliged to follow this ruleset if they want federal funds. I don't know much about library economics, but I'd imagine most public libraries in this country depend on those funds, so the argument that this is a voluntary restriction (and therefore less egregious) falls flat with me. But the court feels it is an important distinction. Something to think about the next time Congress passes an "if you want Uncle Sam's money..." sort of law.
posted by /\/\/\/ at 2:06 PM on June 23, 2003


Just to get technical, it only requires libraries to install filters if they receive federal money (through grants and what's called the e-Rate discount program). In practice, of course, this requires filters on all public library computers because most libraries rely upon federal funding to some degree or other. (on preview: yes, /\/\/\/)

Speaking as a librarian, I wouldn't have that much of a problem with this if filtering software worked in actuality the way it is supposed to in theory. Filtering software programs, as they are, are little more than lists of blocked websites with a little bit of filtering for certain keywords. This is a major problem because companies that develop these programs aren't required to list what sites are blocked, so if they have a certain bias (religious, political, whatever) it shows in their software. What happens if you have a 15-year-old who is questioning his sexuality and would like to explore his questions anonymously (not look at porn, but actually find help with his situation), but all the sites mentioning "homosexuality" are blocked? Doesn't it violate his privacy to have to explain to a librarian why he wants the filters turned off?
posted by arco at 2:08 PM on June 23, 2003


Also worth noting is Souter's dissent. The majority opinion notes that libraries have always excluded pornography from their collections. Souter makes the case that excluding pornography from an already existing (i.e., bought-and-paid-for) resource is a completely different animal from spending money to purchase pornographic materials. Souter, a self-described Luddite who lives in a cabin, totally "gets" the Internet. Whooda thunkit?
posted by /\/\/\/ at 2:14 PM on June 23, 2003


Doesn't it violate his privacy to have to explain to a librarian why he wants the filters turned off?

Not that I'm for this act in any way, but I'm pleased to be able to report that none of the librarians I've ever worked with would dream of asking that kind of question.
posted by JanetLand at 2:27 PM on June 23, 2003


Sigh. I've found ftrain blocked by some of the filters I've encountered. The root concern I have here is one of the basic ones that Lawrence Lessig has: the problems associated with de facto delegation of law and enforcement to code (or any automated means). For whatever reason, most filters are actually terrible at judging whether or not a site is actual porn or information about breast cancer, genital mutilation. Or a story/discussion where description of sex is present, but it's not the whole point of the work in question.

I'm not so much concerned about the ideal concept that minors should have their access to porn restricted. I'm concerned about whether people try to do it right. Maybe filtering can get better (I've heard of filtering services that actually employ human beings to do the job...on the proxy, all requests on a whitelist are let through, blacklisted sites can be submitted for re-review, unlisted sites are previewed by a combo of machine and human in not-quite realtime). And hopefully, there's some provision for adults to surf w/o the filter, or for minors to request permission to view a blocked site after preview by a librarian or something.

And while we're at it, can we ban Piers Anthony? (Please?)

(OK, Anthony was sortof fun in jr. high...)
posted by namespan at 2:28 PM on June 23, 2003


me mentioning the word "sex" in this post could get Metafilter blocked by a web filter.

This is bad for kids, how?
posted by Dark Messiah at 2:37 PM on June 23, 2003


me mentioning the word "sex" in this post could get Metafilter blocked by a web filter.




This is bad for Metafilter, how?
posted by yesster at 2:43 PM on June 23, 2003


I send cash to the federal government so that they can send it to the library ten blocks from my house why?
posted by Wood at 2:48 PM on June 23, 2003


I'm one of the plaintiffs in this case. It has been a discouraging morning.

It depends on the size of the library JanetLand. If the library is a small one in a small town then the very act of asking for the filters to be turned off could very well serve as public notice of the users intentions.

An interlibrary white-list is really the only way to do this as far as I can tell. The big issue here is how does this end up being implemented? If the ALA is enabled to create and manage a white list then this won't be a huge hit on the integrity of libraries. If on the other hand the federal government comes up with a list of approved censors, which are determined by graft, lobbiests, & nonsense, then this decision will be a huge disaster for everyone involved.


The ACLU only received the decision a few hours ago and there is much work with fine tooth combs yet to be done.
posted by filchyboy at 3:20 PM on June 23, 2003


Do we really need a technological solution to a social problem?
Once someone loses privledges to use the internet because of using those computers to view obvious porno sites then the chilling affect would more or less help control human behavoir.

Look at how well "be quiet in the library" signs work. Most simply obey the sign at face value, knowing they could be kicked out for disobeying it. Once people become loud the librarian asks them to quiet down. We don't need decibal meters and special laws to take care of this, like the "swear detector" in Judge Dredd. The same can be applied to the internet.

I'd much rather have someone be able to sneak in a little porno than make the internet unusable for everyone else. SCOTUS can learn a lot from saying, "It is better than 100 guilty men go free than for one innocent man to goto prison."

Also, I'm highly skeptical of the constitutionality of "pulling federal funding" as extortion on the part of the federal government. This is clearly, in my opinion, a check against local government that is not in the constitution.

Regardless, this is a big win for the pro-censorship organizations (big religion), the big federal government people, the anti-local government people (why cant we vote on this on a state by state basis AND get federal funds), etc. SCOTUS could have simply said that this greatly threatens first amendment protections and thrown the whole thing out. Its very telling that they didn't.

>I wouldn't have that much of a problem with this if filtering software worked in actuality the way it is supposed to in theory.

On the plus side, the open source web proxy Squid has a filtering add-on. The good side of this is that the blocked sites list is open to all; commercial filters keep their lists secret. At least there's some transparency with the open source solution and the library can edit the file and heuristics as need be. Plus the software is free, so if the libraries have to pay someone to install the filter software they can save some money with Squid and have some transparency too.
posted by skallas at 3:22 PM on June 23, 2003


Solution: if many libaries our like the one in my town, no kid under a certain age allowed to use the computers set aside for adults; kids have their onw computers in children's area of library. Thurn off filters for Adults and have them on for kids.

We don't seem to get porno viewing at our library because the computers are side by side and no barriers between them. A vivid hot pic would easily be spotted and so most folks seem not anxious to view porn in public.
posted by Postroad at 3:25 PM on June 23, 2003


Postroad, I don't see how that's a solution at all. The problem is that the filter will block things the kid is looking for. Are we so fargone in this censorship debate that we're ignoring the needs of the under-18 crowd?

Also, the legislation allows for adults to ask for the filter to be shut off. Still, if someone who is under 18 can't access a page then its still a problem.
posted by skallas at 3:33 PM on June 23, 2003


I want to become a militant socialist librarian now.
posted by cortex at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2003


Look at how well "be quiet in the library" signs work. Most simply obey the sign at face value, knowing they could be kicked out for disobeying it. Once people become loud the librarian asks them to quiet down. We don't need decibal meters and special laws to take care of this, like the "swear detector" in Judge Dredd. The same can be applied to the internet.

You know, this may well be true. In my local library, I've never encountered a filter, but they do have a sign up that says "No pornography" (as well as "No excessively violent images" and "No chat rooms"). I'm not terribly nosy about what's going on around me, but I don't believe I've ever seen anyone violating that.
posted by namespan at 3:52 PM on June 23, 2003


Not always. I used to work in an university library, and our computers were on round tables, so there were some that faced away from other people. People were occasionally caught looking at porn, and once the maintenance found a rather icky substance on the chair that indicated someone had been looking at porn.
posted by stoneegg21 at 4:05 PM on June 23, 2003



Whoops sorry about that. I didn't realize I left a mess.

posted by filchyboy at 4:28 PM on June 23, 2003


I predict rioting the first time a library web filter blocks anything "Harry Potter" as being "Hirsute Drug Addict" viewing.
posted by Dunvegan at 4:37 PM on June 23, 2003


Personally, I don't see why the taxpayers should have to shell out for someone to go to the library and look at porn. If people want to look at internet porn, they can damn well pay for their own computer and Internet access. In the main public library in my metro area, it is about impossible to even get into the catalog for five minutes to look up a book, because people camp out there ALL DAY using the internet. They go off and leave their stuff all over the seats, and then start bitching when they come back and someone is trying to use "THEIR" computer. Why is the taxpayer's money being used to let people play "Bejeweled" all day long? I don't really see this as a valuable public service. I would just like to be able to look up a damn book at the library without having to risk a fistfight to do it. Lately, I've been looking up books at home over the internet and taking the printout with me, since I know it's going to be impossible to look up anything once I am there. And virtually all libraries have catalogs which are only accessible by computer-- the days of the physical card catalog are long gone.
posted by Shoeburyness at 4:41 PM on June 23, 2003


Shoeburyness -- I was without a workable net connection for a couple weeks after I moved. The library saved my ass in that respect.

And, from innocent and discreet screen-glancing experience, I can say that (in my town at least) people seem to use the Internet mostly for reading.

It's, like, an information resource? In the public library?
posted by cortex at 4:48 PM on June 23, 2003


Considering how a few posts ago we noted libraries were putting up signs saying "the FBI wasn't here," I find it hard to believe libraries opposed to this won't do everything in their power to fuck the system over.

It wouldn't be to hard, too. I mean, just install a filter that blocks the word "Bush" 'cuz it's naughty, and you'll have 90% of the people asking to turn off the filter just so they can read the web site of their favorite newspaper.

And the swear detector was in Demolition Man. You're messing up your shitty Stallone movies.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 5:00 PM on June 23, 2003


Where I work we have recessed computer screens, meaning that the screens sit "inside" a table and the user looks down at an angle; these have been absolutely essential to maintaining a relatively civilized environment vis a vis pornography. The "shame" approach Postroad is talking about absolutely would not work in most large urban libraries; for every person who would be shamed into not looking at pornography, there would another exhibitionist who got off on having the person next to him (or her) know what was being looked at.

Shoeburyness: I absolutely understand your concern, but we as librarians are against censorship in principle not because we think everyone should be free to view pornography, per se, but because adults should be free to access whatever information they wish, regardless of how controversial it is. (Within certain limits; child pornography, for example, is justifiably censored because it violates and infringes on so many other rights...) Substitute "The Bible" or "communist material" for the word "pornography" in your post above and you see what I'm getting at. Just because you or I think something is disgusting doesn't mean we have the right to restrict another person's access to it.

The majority opinion regarding "libraries haven't bought pornography before" doesn't hold water, because libraries don't have money to buy absolutely everything. If libraries had absolutely every published material at their disposal (i.e. the kind of completely open access the internet affords), regardless of cost, this issue would have come up sooner.
posted by arco at 5:25 PM on June 23, 2003


Personally, I don't see why the taxpayers should have to shell out for someone to go to the library and look at porn.

As far as that goes, I don't see why I as a taxpayer should have to shell out for someone to go the library and read that Danielle Steele/Sandra Brown/Harry Potter/[insert any author you hate] crap. And I daresay there are a large number of taxpayers who resent paying for me to go to the library and read Charles Lamb, Anthony Trollope (hey, would a filter catch that?), and arty books with naked statues.
posted by JanetLand at 5:43 PM on June 23, 2003


I still think they should force all 'adult' entertainment to use .xxx as a suffix.

I ain't gonna be on the board that decides what goes where, however.
posted by cinderful at 6:28 PM on June 23, 2003


Regarding the actual efficacy of filters in an educational environment (schools and libraries), the EFF has some interesting findings.
posted by arco at 6:33 PM on June 23, 2003


Personally, I don't see why the taxpayers should have to shell out for someone to go to the library and look at porn.
So instead, you prefer spending even more money on technology that some 9-year-old hacker is going to burn through just for the hell of it.
posted by mischief at 9:35 PM on June 23, 2003


Speaking of shelling out to pay, what really gets me riled is seeing Dianetics, Homeopathics, Channeling, and other loopy-fruit new age shit on the shelves.

"Playboy" versus "Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought" -- I know which one is most dangerous to our youth.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:58 PM on June 23, 2003


yea, i hate paying for free books too, if poor people really want to read anything i'm sure companies like mcdonalds or KFC would fill the need.
posted by rhyax at 10:52 PM on June 23, 2003


It's amazing how these "strict constructionist," "state's rights" judges can find it in themselves to deny local authorities the ability to police the matter of ponography themselves.
Oh, I'm sorry, no corporations or politician's were harmed in the process you say? Well, I suppose it's OK to be hypocritical then.

After all it's only the basic rights of the marginally poor that are being intruded upon. Let them get a job and buy their own damn computer and DSL by gawd! Free shit is just unAmerikan anyways! [/satire]
posted by nofundy at 6:29 AM on June 24, 2003


I am still wondering how it became that kids have some rights on the internet?
posted by eas98 at 6:51 AM on June 24, 2003


Personally, I don't see why the taxpayers should have to shell out for someone to go to the library and look at porn.

Do you see why it is better to shell out to companies who make a product that

a) doesn't' work (will not block all offending material and will block plenty of legit material)

b) can be easily substituted for something free (ever heard of the "hosts" file in wintel machines?)

c) keeps its filtering criteria proprietary (why should any government pay for proprietary software is another good question for some other afternoon)

?
posted by magullo at 7:02 AM on June 24, 2003


Personally, I don't see why the taxpayers should have to shell out for someone to go to the library and look at porn.
- Shoeburyness

Thanks to increased public library budget cuts in many states, you have no need to worry.
posted by zedzebedia at 7:18 AM on June 24, 2003


The majority opinion regarding "libraries haven't bought pornography before" doesn't hold water, because libraries don't have money to buy absolutely everything. If libraries had absolutely every published material at their disposal (i.e. the kind of completely open access the internet affords), regardless of cost, this issue would have come up sooner.

And it further doesn't hold water because there have nearly always been a few libraries that do hold some pornography in their collections and such are attainable through interlibrary loan.

My home town's public library (Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Washington state) carried pornography when I was a kid, up until at least 1995 (the last time I worked there). They had Playboy and Playgirl, and for a while Penthouse. To prevent theft, they were kept in storage and you had to ask for them, but they would not deny ANYBODY the request.

If a 14 year old asked for it, they got it. If an 82 year old asked for it, they got it. This was one of those things that kids bandied about, whether they could get porn just by asking. We never knew if it was true, and none of us were really willing to ask a (usually female) librarian. But when I started working there, one of the questions at the interview was whether I'd be willing to fulfill such a request and I finally learned it was true and that I'd wasted much time as a child trying to sneak quick peaks in the convenience store.

So, I wonder if the FVRL could go to the Supreme Court and say "We have historically provided pornography as part of our collection and did not create that filter, so can we continue to do so with the internet."
posted by obfusciatrist at 7:31 AM on June 24, 2003


Shame on the librarians for their lack of creativity to this problem. The obvious answer is for them to create their *own* blocking software!
The poorly written law didn't specify *which* filter to use, so why not create your own!
And since obscenity and indecency are local standards, why not use it to block the web pages of congressmen and senators and social agitators who advocate censorship?

Even in plain text, you could insert replacement words over the obscene names of censors. For example, in a news story: "Senator Fuckhead shaking hands with prominent Evangelical Minister Reverend Incest."
posted by kablam at 7:42 AM on June 24, 2003


In the main public library in my metro area, it is about impossible to even get into the catalog for five minutes to look up a book, because people camp out there ALL DAY using the internet.

Sounds to me like your real argument is against poor resource management by your local library. That's not a legitimate reason to suggest that the freedom to use the internet for any lawful purpose should be limited thanks to someone's financial status.

I am still wondering how it became that kids have some rights on the internet?

I'm wondering why people don't recognize that kids have rights, period, because this isn't about the internet. You can take the internet out of the equation because this isn't about the media. This law has the same effect of the government forcing librarians to allow a dour faced old lady into the building to follow patrons through the stacks, inexplicably smacking their hands when they pick up certain books because she happens to think -- for reasons she cannot and will not explain to anyone -- that they should read them.

Even though this will keep Little Johnny away from "The Story of O" it also keeps his mother away from "Feeling Whole: Life After Mastectomy" and his teenaged sister away from "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and keeps his older brother away from "The Rise of the Third Reich" which he needs for his college history term paper.

Everyone in this country has the right to to be free from government intrusion into what they read or see, and this ruling is tantamount to the government having the right -- by virtue of their control on the purse strings of tax dollars allocated to libraries -- to say that there are things which we aren't allowed to see without jumping through hoops which invade our privacy and which, in many cases, will effectively quash our ability to see those things at all.

This ruling doesn't just affect children, it affects everyone who uses internet connected terminals in public libraries.
posted by Dreama at 9:48 AM on June 24, 2003


This law has the same effect of the government forcing librarians to allow a dour faced old lady into the building to follow patrons through the stacks

Aww, c'mon Dreama! Can't it be a dour faced old man? Librarians have enough trouble with stereotypes as it is.
posted by JanetLand at 2:42 PM on June 24, 2003


« Older Ionospheric luminescence. Tonight....  |  George Washington made his own... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments