"Public Libraries Shouldn't Filter Internet Access"

by Jeffrey Shallit

To filter or not to filter: that is the question facing Canadian public libraries today.

Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous web pages, or to install blocking software against a sea of pornography and hate literature?

To figure out the answer, it may help to know how filtering software works. Generally speaking, there are two approaches.

One method is to block web pages based on computer analysis of their content. But since computers still can't understand English as well as a 5-year-old, these programs are essentially reduced to looking for the occurrence of certain strings of symbols, such as 'xxx'. This means that xxx.lanl.gov, an archive of mathematics and physics research papers, gets blocked. If the filtering program searches for the occurrence of 'breast', then pages on breast cancer and breast-feeding may well get blocked.

Another method is to censor based on a list of sites determined by the company that makes the filter. But this list is almost always considered a trade secret and is not revealed to the library or the user. The unfortunate result is that web sites may be blocked for irrelevant political reasons, depending on the whim of the filter maker. For example, some filters censor any mention of homosexuality, paganism, and feminism. Some even censor criticism of the filters themselves.

Furthermore, some filter makers don't carefully examine the sites they block. One program, SmartFilter, blocked the Iowa State Division of Narcotics Enforcement (presumably because it talked too much about drugs). It even blocked a page written by a student named Walter Wager because of "gambling". Despite these absurdities, the Ontario provincial government recently chose SmartFilter to censor employee access to the Internet.

Other sites that have been blocked by some filtering programs include the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, the official website for the Quakers, and the American Association of University Women, Maryland.

While worried parents are free to install filters on their home computers, the truth is that filters are currently too crude a tool for libraries depend on. Using them doesn't really protect kids, and they risk turning the purpose of the library on its head: instead of providing useful information, the library becomes an information censor.

There are good alternatives to filters. Libraries can develop acceptable use policies, explaining the ground rules for Internet access. And privacy screens can limit inadvertent exposure to offensive material.

The furor over filters really misses the point. Which is more important, ensuring that users quickly find useful and reliable information, or blocking the one in a thousand searches that results in offensive content?

It's clearly the former. Instead of censoring, libraries should focus their energies on developing good portals to the Internet, with recommended sites for different age groups. A good start in this direction is the Kitchener Public Library's own "Librarian's Picks" page, on the web at http://www.kpl.org/picks/default.htm.