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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.