Internet access and filtering.

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by Peter Fuller, Interim Director

I wrote in a previous post about the important role the internet plays in providing library service.  Providing internet service is not without its challenges, however.  A public library system in Washington State is being sued because it restricts access to the internet by using filters.  Providing internet access is a complex issue that raises a variety of legal, philosophical, technical and operational issues for public libraries. There have been many court rulings at both the state and federal levels pertaining to the use of internet filters.  It has become a complex area of law, but the federal courts have generally ruled in favor of those seeking freer access the internet.  (See for example the ruling by the Federal District Court in Virginia, Mainstream Loudoun, et al. v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library, 24 F.Supp.2d 552.) This evolving legal environment has left our public library and those around the country wrestling with internet accessibility issues.

The Seekonk Public Library employs multiple strategies to prevent illegal or objectionable materials from coming through its computers.  The Library does limited filtering of internet traffic, for example, by using firewalls and other means. Traffic is filtered by type of format, internet address and internet protocols.  The Seekonk Public Library does not use software that filters based on content, however. This is the type of filtering which is the subject of the recent law suit in Washington State.  Seekonk Public Library is not unusual in this regard. The vast majority of public libraries around the nation do not use this type of filtering.  I think this is the case because most citizens believe that when the government imposes preemptive restrictions on our behavior, the results are ultimately more damaging than what it seeks to prevent.

The primary reasons that Seekonk Public Library does not use content filters are more practical than ideological, however. First, the best functioning filters are expensive to purchase and maintain.  Second, these filters don’t work well.  Even the very best filtering software is only marginally effective at blocking unwanted content. Third, these filters frequently block legitimate traffic which imposes a burden on the 99.99% of library users who follow our policies.

Access to the computers at the Seekonk Public Library is also strictly controlled. You must have a library card to logon to the library’s computers.  Library users may use their own devices to connect to the library’s Wi-Fi network, but they are still required to conform to the library’s internet policy.  Thousands of computer sessions are initiated by library users each year.  In the fifteen years that I have been here, people were found to be viewing something inappropriate in only a handful of cases.  Although these few instances were disturbing and upsetting, the library staff immediately intervened to stop the offensive behavior.

In each of these cases, the offender lost their computer privileges at the library. This is because viewing pornography or using the computers for any illegal purpose is explicitly prohibited in the library’s Internet Use & Safety Policy.  A portion of the policy appears below.

All patrons using the Internet must do so in a responsible manner. This includes: 

     *   Accessing resources only for educational, cultural, recreational and informational purposes.

     *  Not seeking unauthorized access to any computer system.

     *  Not displaying text or graphics which may be considered obscene as defined in MGL 272 § 31.

     *  Not using the Internet for unauthorized, illegal or unethical purposes.

     *  Not reproducing copyright protected materials without permission of the owner.

The library’s policies are thorough and legally sound. These policies support specific rules and guidelines for computer and internet use at the library.

The library also has effective and tested enforcement procedures to implement these policies. The library’s public computers are placed so that their use can be easily monitored by the library staff. While perhaps none of us can define pornography, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it.  And I assure everyone that our staff has no tolerance for it being viewed at the library. The strategy of the Seekonk Public Library is to rely on vigilance and strict enforcement rather than ineffective and costly software.

The library also employs a variety of techniques to protect children who use the internet. The library restricts internet access on the computers in the Children’s room.  A key tenet of the library’s internet policy is that parents should be responsible for their child’s use of the internet. The policy states that, “Restriction of a child’s access to the Internet is solely the responsibility of the parent or legal guardian.” The library empowers parents to enforce their decision by requiring all minors (those under the age of 18) to receive their parent’s permission to use the internet.  It should be noted that this restriction is a controversial practice within the library profession. This rule is indicative of Seekonk Public Library’s determination to err on the side of caution.

As you can see there are no simple answers for dealing with these complex issues.  The library staff and board of trustees take these issues seriously and consider them carefully.  I believe that we have responded reasonably and pragmatically, and in the best interests of all we serve.

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