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November 12, 2003

Filtering: The Low-Down Truth

Since CIPA was upheld, I've been asked to write and present about filtering, to help libraries make choices. Finally, after a lot of thought, I've turned down all these requests, and it's because I have to be true to myself, and continue speaking the truth as I know it. My best advice hasn't changed in seven years. Filters are bad news.

I've had a fairly consistent message (or so I thought) about the weaknesses and limitations of filtering software. I sympathize with managers forced between a rock and a hard spot, and in the past I have provided as much advice as possible to help people who needed to evaluate filtering software.

But what I'm not going to do is put myself in the position--even implied--of endorsing the concept that filtering is a good thing. It's not. I grappled hands-on with the software for years in order to be able to develop this mile-high view, and nothing has budged me from this conclusion, because it's so fundamental to how filters work. Internet content filters block access to Constitutionally protected speech, and do so in a way that removes accountability from the vendor and control from the buyer. This is a Bad Thing.

I'm not a knee-jerk absolutist on access issues (and as I stated in American Libraries not too long ago, absolutism killed us in the courts). If you're four years old, I don't care if your speech is blocked (and if your parents don't want to make that decision, I'll be only to happy to make it for them in a manner that is friendliest to adult library access). If you're forty, I care a lot. If you're fourteen, I care, but I understand that adolescence is a legal and cultural battleground.

But I'm also not Dr. Strangelove. I'm never going to love the bomb. You go ahead, if you need to. Bring in the "experts" to tell you how to "select" filters, prop a couple of vendors on the dais, and make your decisions. It's a tough world, and money is useful. I have said from Day 1 that managers should always be given enough rope to hang themselves with.

I'll keep on with my message, and I won't dilute it or confuse it by appearing to help anyone "choose" a filter. Internet content filters block access to Constitutionally protected speech. Filters are bad news. That's why we fought CIPA and COPA. We lost, but we were still right.

Decades from now, we'll look back at our primitive, panicked decisions, and wonder what all the fuss was about. But if you are waiting for me to love the bomb, pack a lunch and bring a blanket, because you're going to have to wait until Hell freezes over.

Posted by kgs at November 12, 2003 07:03 AM

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Tracked on November 13, 2003 07:56 PM


Woo woo, nice piece. Couldn't agree more.

Posted by: jessamyn at November 13, 2003 08:40 AM

Excellent expression of our collective dilemma as regards comparing/recommending/studying/reporting on something that is just plain wrongheaded to begin with. However, I have to wonder what ~isn't~ absolutist about this statement?

*Filters are bad news.*

If that's so, how can we implement this?

*If you're four years old, I don't care if your speech is blocked (and if your parents don't want to make that decision, I'll be only to happy to make it for them in a manner that is friendliest to adult library access).*

And what does this mean in practical terms?

*If you're fourteen, I care, but I understand that adolescence is a legal and cultural battleground.*



Posted by: Melora at November 13, 2003 10:12 AM

Melora, it means we need to stop bowing before the altar of age-neutral access, wipe our tears, and go back to court, this time with a focus on winning for our adult users.

I am not an absolutist on access, but that doesn't mean filters work. They don't. The two statements are unrelated.

Posted by: K. G. Schneider at November 13, 2003 10:54 AM

Karen, I am glad you are not an "absolutist." Neither am I.

I too have been a vocal opponent to the use of filters in schools, but CIPA has made them a necessary evil for most schools that rely on e-rate funds.

Now it is not a matter of whether to have them or not, but how to use them in the wisest possible manner and teach people not to rely on them. It is still important that you continue to consult and advise.

My comments on the issue can be found at: http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/freedom.html

Thanks for all the great work you do for our profession.

Doug Johnson

Posted by: Doug Johnson at November 13, 2003 12:48 PM

Filters are to the Internet what they are to cigarettes. My old man smoked two packs a day of filtered Kents and died at 49 from it. When he had the big one there was a smoke burning between his fingers. Perhaps without the filters he'd have died young, eh?

Posted by: Michael at November 13, 2003 01:15 PM

Doug, as stated earlier, people have to do what they have to do. My refusal to help libraries filter is intended to be educational, and the message would be muddled (and completely ignored) if I said "filtering is bad, and here's how you do it."

Posted by: K. G. Schneider at November 13, 2003 01:34 PM

Karen, thanks for standing up for what you believe and being unwilling to prostitute your knowledge for $$$$. Sometimes absolutism is a good thing!

Posted by: Cynthia at November 13, 2003 03:18 PM

Hear, hear.

Excellent post.

By the way, giving up on age-neutral access won't help IN COURT. The legal theories which upheld CIPA have very little to do with the way the age argument is popularly framed (though disclaimer, I am not a lawyer)

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 13, 2003 03:36 PM

As usual you have hit the nail on the head. We must provide free and open access to all information and filters have high prices in both their implementation and for what they do to access.

Posted by: Christine Lind Hage at November 14, 2003 02:14 AM

It couldn't be said it any better! For those of us forced to implement filters, we must remember why we're doing it, and not sign on to the endemic intellectual poverty so-called technology solutions (and their supportive legislators) are selling and which we keep helping them build and refine!

Sigh ... there's a long road ahead!

Posted by: Mary Cavanagh at November 14, 2003 06:23 AM

Karen --

Thanks so much for standing up for your beliefs. I couldn't agree more -- and I sincerely hope that we can change the tone of this argument from one of "librarins think kids + porn is good" to one of access by adults to consitutionally protected speech, thoughts, and information. (I swear, if I have to hear that librarians are for allowing kids to look at pornography one more time, I'm going to implode.)

I'm curious about your thoughts on how we might be able to change the tone of this discussion to something more rational...

Thanks again,

Posted by: Catherine at November 14, 2003 07:51 AM


I can't understand why people think this is a good idea. It's an expensive solution which does not work for its intended purpose AND which interferes with other valid uses. Furthermore, the law disallows any other possible solutions other than filters.

In light of the situation, I think refusing to recommend filters is a good idea.

Posted by: Meg at November 14, 2003 09:05 AM

*Melora, it means we need to stop bowing before the altar of age-neutral access, wipe our tears, and go back to court, this time with a focus on winning for our adult users.*

As I'm sure you're aware, Article V of ALA's "Library Bill of Rights" stipulates that "A personís right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, *age*, background, or views" [emphasis added].

Wouldn't the decision to "stop bowing before the altar of age-neutral access" require a rethinking of the insertion of "age" into Article V?

I have been arguing for years that children are children, and not little adults, so I completely agree with you.

Posted by: Jack Stephens at November 14, 2003 09:57 AM

Kudos, on a great article!
The current obsession over filtering, like most right-wing censorship campaigns, is comepletely focused on "Boob-control".

It is increasingly obvious to many of us that the "boobs" that are corrupting our children's futures are the ones in Washington pushing an agenda of ignorance and deception.

Posted by: Knowledge Seeker at November 14, 2003 10:27 AM

Filter update much appreciated, Karen. We haven't had a lot of substantial librarian comment since the ruling, IMHO. The Supreme Court rules and we roll with the ruling, sometimes rolling over. I agree --I'd like to see a new suit for "adult" access, but I don't think it will happen...

Posted by: DrWeb at November 14, 2003 11:40 AM

For the libraries which can afford it refusing E-Rate funds and standing firm against filtering may be a useful option.

However, in many ways the pronouncement "Filters are bad news." leaves librarians in libraries which cannot afford to forgo E-Rate funds or whose Boards think filtering is just a dandy idea, adrift.

The purist position denies those libraries the significant experience and knowledge Karen has as they struggle to make sense of a remarkably badly drafted law and a dog's breakfast of agendized vendors.

"But what I'm not going to do is put myself in the position--even implied--of endorsing the concept that filtering is a good thing."

Which no one is asking you to do. But what a lot of librarians could use is some advice as to what to look for from the vendors. Is the block list available? Can the filter be turned off? What are the costs over and above the purchase of a filter and annual subscription (if any)?

You can certainly say "All filters suck."; but what would be more helpful would be to say "All filters suck, filters which can do "a", "b" and "c" suck less."

As I have written elsewhere, having lost in Court, the ALA and its technically more savvy members should take control of the filtering issue by setting standards for filters in libraries. Those standards should be based up an absolute commitment to intellectual freedom and a determination to minimize the damage done by CIPA. The vendors will have little choice but to conform to those standards if they want a shot at the library market.

Abdicating behind the announcement that "Filters are bad news." abandons the implementation of filtering to the vendors.

When a critic as perceptive and challenging as Karen drops out of the debate librarians and library patrons lose. Again.

Posted by: Jay Currie at November 15, 2003 03:55 PM

Jay, in practice, here's the answers:

"Is the block list available?"
NO. It's considered a deep secret, and the vendor will SUE anyone who makes it available. The few open-blacklist products are oddities with a minuscule market impact" (sorry, no offense meant to IF2K)

"Can the filter be turned off?"
In theory, maybe. But by the time the patron gets past the stigma of asking for the "porn password", and finds one of the overworked staff, and the staff member finds someone authorized to do it, that's a joke.

"What are the costs over and above the purchase of a filter and annual subscription (if any)?"
What's the going rate for system administrators and technical support in your area?

This isn't hard stuff. It's not what people want to hear. But the answers are fundamentally pretty simple.

The biggest reason not to get into the "lice vs. fleas" business is this:


It doesn't matter if someone says "All censorware sucks, but BlinderBox sucks less". That will be immediately put in their marketing literature as "Famous Expert picks BlinderBox over all other censorware!". Moreover, anyone else who then criticizes BlinderBox will be met with the retort of "But Famous Expert picked us over all the others, and are you saying Famous Expert is wrong?"

The free-speech side has been down this path before. There's still repercussions from a very ill-consider decision years ago to give some PR to a censorware maker. It was a disaster all around, for reasons similar to ones I outline above.

Note this is not an "ideological" objection. It's an absolutely practical argument.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 16, 2003 09:44 AM

I'm thankful there are librarians out there who are taking a stand against filters which absolutely block consitutionally protected speech. In fact, I take the position that approximately 15% of the blocks are erroneous...even if you're using what I consider to be one of the better filter products.

That said, I also recognize there are librarians out there who cannot afford not to comply with CIPA. I hope that the summary of web pages I'm making available to everyone at filtering.galecia.com will help people find a product that suits their needs...if that's what they decide to do.

And further, I encourage those who use filters to take their responsibility seriously and learn how to use it as effectively as it can be used.


Posted by: Lori Ayre at November 16, 2003 12:04 PM

As a Young Adult librarian, I have to say that I am scared of what will happen if we block even more access to information for teens. They are grappling with decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, and most/many are offended and too embarassed to come ask for help turning off a filter to see info on STDs and AIDS, date rape, mental health sites, and more. I think we all need to keep in mind that just because someone isn't 18 doesn't mean that they're not capable of making informed decisions for themselves. These kids are used to getting their news and information from the web, and filtering tends to penalize the poorest kids who sometimes need the information desperately. Teens may be the ones losing the most from the CIPA decision.

Posted by: Erin at November 17, 2003 01:40 PM


"The few open-blacklist products are oddities with a minuscule market impact"

I agree. And people like you and Karen are not helping this situation. So long as you dump all of the filtering products into one barrel, people who are responding to the legitimate concern about tranparency are left with a trivial marketshare. So who has the big piece of the market? Well, the people who sue you if you try to crack their encrypted blacklist.

There has to be leadership from people who are technically aware and Karen's postion is an abject abdication of that leadership.

"Can the filter be turned off?"

On IF2K the library patron can be given a choice to "click through" without any librarian intervention. Librarians asked for this, IF2K delivered. In our view that is what the SCOTUS decision requires.


This is key. There is no reason at all that a library should not work its costs of CIPA compliance to its advantage. That means one shot pricing, a system configured to require a minimum of staff time and no annual subcription. Check out Lori's site for price comparisons.

"Lice vs fleas"

Odious isn't it. But if lice go away on command, tell you what they are eating and cost a fifth of fleas the issues really are pretty simple.

The problem is that so long as you insist upon calling all of them vermin the critical distinctions are missed.

The biggest reason to get involved is to bring your technical expertise and long standing reputation to bear on finding the least worst compliance alternative to a remarkably dumb law.

If you and Karen remain silent the mass market, agendized "solutions" win.

To quote Burke, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

Posted by: Jay Currie at November 17, 2003 07:07 PM

I am deeply flattered that you think I could do anything to affect the censorware market. However, I fear you have mistaken me for someone with influence.

The problems regarding censorware blacklists are endemic, and not under my control.
See my page about Open Censorware issues

I suspect "click-though" is not acceptable - it makes no logical sense in terms of the law, as I see it.

I'm not against someone collecting pricing info. But I have no interest myself in collating marketing information.

Again, my view is that "least worst" is going to end up being "endorsement" in practice.

And that Burke quote describes why I was driven to quit

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 18, 2003 09:29 AM

Unusual ideas can make enemies.

Posted by: Jessica Saunders at December 9, 2003 06:46 PM


Posted by: Meban at February 20, 2004 05:05 AM

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