Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Content filtering for public libraries

The issue of content filtering of the Internet has come up yet again. Some libraries are seeking more E-rate funding in the Internet Access categories and are thus looking at CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act) compliance and "technology protection measures." Others are looking for solutions to problem patrons abusing the library's internet.

Internet filtering is a difficult and contentious issue among librarians. Some feel that filters must NEVER be used for ANYONE in the library. These librarians see the defending the First Amendment access to information as the overriding responsibility of librarians. Filters can interfere with constitutionally protected speech so they cannot even be considered. Other librarians are interested in protecting library patrons from illegal and objectionable materials that may be encountered on the Internet. Schools often block anything that might possibly be considered problematic or objectionable. Unfortunately, this can prevent students from accessing information they need to complete assignments. It can also prevent public library patrons from accessing legal and unobjectionable sites like web email or social networks from school/community libraries.

Many librarians find themselves between the two extremes and are looking for solutions that will help block illegal and objectionable sites while allowing access to the vast majority of Internet content. I think that filters when chosen with care and used judiciously can help and will allow the libraries to comply with CIPA.

Unfortunately for busy librarians, selecting the right filter is going to take some study and trials. TechSoup has some good basic information:
I think you need to start with your library's Internet policy. My colleague Tracy Cook led a workshop at the 2011 MLA/MPLA Annual Conference on Library Internet Policies. It might be helpful to take a look at her notes from the session to help stimulate a discussion with your library's board. You should spell out in your policy just what is considered inappropriate and for whom. CIPA requires you to block web sites that are obscene or contain child pornography for everyone including adults. There are additional requirements for minors.

Internet Safety Policy
The Internet safety policy must address the following issues:

  • Access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet and World Wide Web
  • The safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications
  • Unauthorized access including "hacking" and other unlawful activities by minors online
  • Unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors
  • Measures designed to restrict minors' access to materials harmful to minors
Once you've defined as a board what you deem "harmful to minors," Internet filters can be used to help restrict access to those materials for minors. But I think you need to be very careful and thoughtful about just what you want to restrict adults from accessing. I would recommend getting a filtering product that allows several different levels of filtering to account for different age groups. That way you can apply filters in an age appropriate manner.

As objectionable as it may be to many community members and library staff, pornography is not necessarily obscene and therefore may be constitutionally protected speech. Web sites depicting racism, sexism or violence are probably also protected by the First Amendment. Blocking these sites with a filter can subject the library to a First Amendment lawsuit. Hence, I repeat my caution to be very judicious about which categories you choose to block for adults and make sure that library staff can disable the filter at the request of an adult library patron. It's a very good idea to get a filter that lets people know that it's blocking a site and gives them the option to have the site unblocked by library staff.

Once you've come up with a draft internet policy, you can start looking at filters to meet your needs. I would certainly want to test filters before I committed my library to buying, installing and using them. This is another good place to bring in your board and/or staff to help. Install each filter you're considering on a computer and then test it for a while. Make sure it blocks sites you want blocked and doesn't block those that should be accessible. You'll probably also want to test how easy it is to turn on and off. If you don't like it, try another. This is something that library staff and patrons are going to have to live with so you want the filter to be something that works for you.

If you're filtering for CIPA compliance, make sure that discussion and approval of your Internet Use Policy is listed on the agenda for your library board meeting. This meeting must be accessible to the public. Also, keep records related to your filter purchase and testing with your E-rate files. If your library is audited for E-rate, auditors may ask to see proof that you're in compliance with CIPA.

It would be great to hear from libraries as to which filters they're using and how satisfied they are with their choices. This is another one of those areas where we can learn a lot from each others experiences.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Hi Suzanne. Thanks for the content filtering post.

Any librarian at the Missoula Public Library, or any of a few other small libraries I watch, will tell you that we do not filter.

What they mean by that though is that we are not content filtering. We do use software and techniques to filter sites that are known sources of infection, but we do not filter sites based on their content.

I have never looked at a content-filtering application though so I can't contribute to a comparison of products.