I haven’t set foot in a physical library for at least three years, so it’s somewhat amusing to me that I’m suddenly obsessed with the question of Internet censorship in libraries. And yet, it’s a vital discussion: As more of our resources go digital, ensuring that information in our libraries stays free and unfettered becomes increasingly important.
So, last week I posted about a debate in Los Angeles, as framed by the LA Times. Now, I’ll tackle a somewhat tangential issue: The use of commercial software by libraries, schools, and other government-funded entities and the implications of that usage.
Recently, the ACLU and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed suit against the Salem (MO) public library for unconstitutionally blocking access to websites discussing minority religions by improperly classifying them as “occult” or “criminal.” According to the ACLU:
Salem resident Anaka Hunter contacted the ACLU after she was unable to access websites pertaining to Native American religions or the Wiccan faith for her own research. After protesting to the library director, Glenda Wofford, portions of the sites were unblocked, but much remained censored. Wofford said she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.
Other sites blocked by the library’s Netsweeper software include the official webpage of the Wiccan church, the Wikipedia entry pertaining to Wicca, Astrology.com and The Encyclopedia on Death and Dying, which contains viewpoint-neutral discussions of various cultures’ and religions’ ideas of death and death rituals.
Let’s start here: CIPA, as I mentioned, requires the blocking of obscene content and content deemed ‘harmful to minors.’ The latter is problematic in its vagueness, particularly when dealing with libraries, where adults are commonly patrons of the Internet. Yes, CIPA allows for a user aged 18+ to request a site be unblocked, but that patron should not have to go to unreasonable lengths to make that happen. And if the allegations in the ACLU’s case are accurate, then Wofford seems to have gone far beyond the scope of her job in claiming that she was required to report the customer’s request.
But more problematic to me is the categorization of the sites requested. The ACLU case alleges that the Salem Public Library had classified sites about Wicca and Astrology as “occult” or even “criminal.” It’s unlikely, however, that Salem had anything to do with the former (or even, perhaps the latter). Rather, Salem likely bought their filtering software (in this case, from Canadian company Netsweeper) out of the box. If true, then all they had to do was choose which categories to block.
As you well know, this is a sensitive subject for me ever since Websense erroneously categorized this very site as pornography. I know how these things work: They’re part automated, part categorized by minimum wage staff. It’s a boring job and mistakes are bound to happen. But a whole occult category? What is this, 1956? But I digress…
What I find problematic is how much control these private companies–and particularly, though not only, Netsweeper–have over what we view. As Helmi Noman pointed out last year, Netsweeper’s categorization of Tumblr.com as a pornographic sites (apparently 50% of the pages hosted on Tumblr are pornographic in nature!) resulted in the blogging platform being blocked in four countries (and, most likely, the Salem Public Library too).
More alarming is that these filtering tools can easily be gamed. My blog was categorized by Websense as pornography because of one post with an outrageous amount of comment spam that included outlinks to porn sites. If I wanted to get your site blocked by the Salem Public Library, all I’d need to do is drop a bunch of porn on it, easy-peasy.
Again, I digress. And lest my line of commentary be perceived as too narrow, I stumbled upon a great post this afternoon by Jason Pitzl-Waters laying out the other implications of this case. Some of the comments are fascinating as well.