In light of a couple situations in libraries in the Chicago region in the past year, I decided it was a good time to refresh my knowledge of issues surrounding Internet filtering and censorship. The Public Library Association had a program just for this purpose, Filtering Out Internet Censorship: Advocacy, Professional Ethics, and the Law. The speakers were two librarians who are experts on the subject, Deborah Caldwell-Stone from the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom and Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library in California, also known for her blog Librarian in Black.
I left the program reassured with the knowledge that no public library has been forced by a court of law to start filtering its Internet content. According to Caldwell-Stone, since the passage of the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000, the most significant case has been Kathleen R. v. the City of Livermore, which ruled that the library was a portal for content and had no legal obligation to filter. The library had a clear policy stating that parents were responsible for monitoring what their children saw, and the mother who sued the library had signed a form acknowledging this policy.
The libraries that have run into legal problems were those who filtered beyond the dictates of CIPA, which only requires that libraries that accept federal funds for providing Internet filter their Internet content. In these case, over-filtering may have been the libraries' choice of policies or it may have been the result of the workings of the filtering companies that they hired.
The other strong message of this program is that Internet filters still do not actually work, even in 2014, a couple of decades after they were introduced. CIPA requires that the libraries that filter do so to block obscene images and child pornography. Tests have repeated shown that the pixel identification processes used by Internet filters have about a 40 percent success rate in blocking these images. They also sometimes block images that are not obscene.
Houghton told how Internet filtering is actually censorship. None of the companies that sell filters will explain how they work, claiming that their methods are trade secrets. In her previous position as head of digital services at the San Jose Public Library, she tested filters and saw that most block text, which is not called for in CIPA. Furthermore, they often block constitutionally protected subjects, including sex education, gay rights, transgender issues, and abortion. A library that buys filtering has surrendered some of its ability to provide information to silent companies. Sadly, this situation most affects the poor, people most in need of a public source for Internet service, as their libraries are the ones most in need of federal funds.