The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 2, Issue No. 1 pages 85-90 
© 2000 CENTER FOR COGNITIVE LIBERTY AND ETHICS
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946
 

 

 

 

Banning Books in the Digital Age: New Federal Law Makes
Librarians Internet Censors

Richard Glen Boire

Under a new law passed by Congress on December 15, 2000, public libraries and schools are ordered to install expensive and unreliable content filtering software on all computers capable of accessing the Internet.1 A library that fails or refuses to install filtering software can be stripped of much needed federal funding.

The new law was cast as a way to protect children from pornography, but its scope is much broader than keeping little Johnny’s eyes away from digital centerfolds. By ordering public libraries to install blocking software on their Internet-connected computers, the new law treats adults like children and turns public libraries into censorial agents of the government.

Far more than pornographic sites are blocked by today’s content-filtering software. One test of the “Librarian Edition” of a filtering software package called “X-Stop” showed that sites such as the American Association of University Women, the AIDS Quilt Site, the Banned Books page at Carnegie Mellon University, the Heritage Foundation Web site, and the University of Chicago's censorship-tracking “Fileroom Project,” were being blocked by the software.2 Another test conducted just this month by the anti-filtering group Peacefire (www.peacefire.org) found that Web sites of Amnesty International and 29 other human rights organizations were blocked by popular filtering software. Access to these sites was blocked because the filtering software categorized them as “sexually explicit,” or as pertaining to “drugs, “violence,” or “hate speech.”3

Banning access to certain information in public libraries violates the Constitution in at least two ways. First, restricting expression based on its content is a glaring violation of the First Amendment. The info-ban violates the First Amendment right to expression of those people whose Web sites are barred from such an important public venue as the nation’s public libraries. Second, the info-ban violates the rights of citizens who are denied access to the suppressed information. The Supreme Court has held that “the right to receive ideas” is protected by the First Amendment.4

By ordering libraries to install content-blocking software, the government is effectively deputizing libraries as new Public Departments of Censorship, and the libraries, in turn, ultimately place this censorship power in the hands of about a half-dozen software companies that sell Internet “filtering” software. Yet, three years ago, the American Library Association presciently issued a sharply worded resolution stating its objection to Internet filtering software, effectively putting Congress on notice that public libraries were not to be transformed into censorship agents.5 Evidently, Congress wasn’t listening.

Internet filtering software is specifically designed to block information based on its content, and to prevent access to certain viewpoints. This is done in one of two ways. One method is to block the specific addresses of Web sites whose content is deemed unacceptable. The second method blocks sites based on scanning for specific key words. Most software filtering programs currently use a combination of these techniques.

Both techniques are problematic. Vendors of filtering programs consider their pre-programmed list of blocked sites to be proprietary information and a trade secret. Thus, sellers of content-filtering software refuse to reveal which specific sites are blocked by their software. As a result, the new law vests the companies that sell filtering software with the unchecked power of censoring specific Web sites, without ever having to reveal exactly what information is denied, nor which sites are being blocked.

Using key search words to filter content is also problematical. None of the filtering packages are very good at determining the context of any given key word. This leads to a sort of blind censorship by machine, as the filtering software spots a key word such as “breast” and in addition to blocking pornographic sites, blocks sites that convey information about breast cancer. The result is that much more than porn sites are blocked from the eyes of curious children.

Mandating the filtering of certain information on the Internet is equivalent to the government banning digital “books” of which it disapproves. The Supreme Court has explained that from the readers’ viewpoint, the Internet is comparable to “a vast library including millions of readily available and indexed publications.”6 In fact, more and more documents are added to the Internet everyday, many of which do not exist in printed form. Consequently, denying Internet access to these digital documents via public venues constitutes an information blackout.

A truly inquisitive mind knows no borders, nor should it. Certainly, the government should not be in the business of policing the minds of Americans by policing their access to certain information at public libraries. Earlier this month, the American Association of University Professors recognized that Internet filtering devices are “a contradiction of the academic library mission to further research and learning through exposure to the broadest possible range of ideas and information.” The Professors went on to say that such content filters “are a fundamental violation of intellectual freedom in academic libraries.”7

While the more affluent users of university facilities are thereby supported in their pursuit of knowledge, the new filtering law limits the range of accessible information to those (often less affluent) people who are reliant on public libraries. By providing free information access to people of all income levels, ethnicity, and location, public libraries perform an important social role in our democracy–a role that is abdicated when materials are screened according to an arbitrary standard of acceptability that suppresses certain points of view by denying access to them.

In an awkward concession to the unconstitutional nature of the info-ban, the new law permits public libraries to disable the filtering software for an adult with a “bona fide research or other lawful purpose.” Yet, this is no protection at all. First, the disabling function is left completely to the library’s discretion. Libraries are not obligated to have a system for turning off the filter. Second, who is to decide what is and what is not “bona fide research?” And why must one be devoted to “serious work,” as opposed to idle interest, in order to access information on certain topics? Will adults have to plead their case before a librarian who then has complete authority to decide whether or not to grant that person access to the uncensored Internet? Third, what happens to privacy in such a scenario? In many libraries, patrons are already required to leave their library card with the librarian while using an Internet-connected computer. With the new law, an adult who seeks access to the uncensored Internet is not only required in many cases to disclose his or her identity, but will also be required to disclose the topic of his or her research.

Imagine the outcry that would ensue if U.S. government agents swept libraries clean of all books that did not meet the government’s seal of approval, or if the government directly banned certain Web sites. Yet, this new law, by exploiting the fear of the Internet as corrupter of the morals of America’s youth, and by making libraries do the dirty work with self-righteous software that goes by names such as “Cyber Patrol,” “Net Nanny,” “CYBERsitter,” “X-Stop,” and “Cyber Snoop,” is a similar attack on intellectual freedom.

Ironically, since 1999 China has blocked the Web sites of U.S. media outlets, human rights groups, and other sources of information that Chinese authorities have deemed “harmful.”

Perhaps the U.S. Congress needs a reminder that unlike China, we have a First Amendment. Rather than utilize the same sort of censorship tactics employed by repressive governments, the U.S. Government should recognize that access to information and freedom of expression on all topics are necessary elements of a healthy democracy. Ordering public libraries to censor the Internet is incompatible not only with intellectual freedom, but with freedom itself.

Notes

1. Labor HHS Education Appropriations Bill (HR 4577), secs. 1731, et. seq.

2. See Wallace, J., “The X-Stop Files” on The Ethical Spectacle Web site (www.spectacle.org).

3. “Amnesty Intercepted: Global human rights groups blocked by Web censoring software,” a report by Peacefire, is available on the group’s website at www.peacefire.org. In response to the new filtering law, Peacefire has also released a free program that essentially jams or otherwise disables the most common filtering software.

4. Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 867 (1982); Pacific Gas & Electric v. Public Utilities Comm’n, 475 U.S. 1, 8 (1986) [“the First Amendment protects the public’s interest in receiving information”].

5. See, “Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries,” American Library Association, adopted July 2, 1997.

6. Reno v. ACLU (1997) 117 S. Ct. 2329, 2335.

7. Association of College and Research Libraries, “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” available online at: http://www.ala.org/acrl/principles.html.

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Versions of this essay were printed in Insight on the News (a publication of The Washington Times), the Sacramento Bee, and TomPaine.com.