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February 12, 2004

Nancy Kranich on Why Filters Don't Work


Former ALA president Nancy Kranich explains that "forcing libraries to choose between funding, equitable access, and censorship means millions of library users will lose, particularly those Americans who reside in the most poverty-stricken areas of the country."

I wish this article gave more thought to the elephant in ALA's living room: the problem of our policy of age-neutral access. I disagree with this policy both strategically and philosophically, and I believe it is this issue that truly divides the ALA governing bodies from the ALA membership and the public at large. Kranich gamely tries a diversionary tactic, pointing out that "too often, filters are set to apply for the youngest users at the expense of all others," but in doing so, leaves an opening for the reader to begin to ask, when is it acceptable to make decisions on behalf of a child? To use her analogy, when do we teach children to swim--and when do we simply prevent them from using the pool?

The net result of our age-neutral approach is implicit in Kranich's article. She points out that many libraries are offered the chance to select whether or not children will have Internet access. An age-sensitive approach to filtering would result in more children having access to the Internet in libraries, even though filtered, and would stand the best chance of ensuring open access as a choice for every adult.

Still and all, when Kranich isn't attempting to argue for ALA's age-neutral policy, she does an excellent job of underscoring something I have said since 1996: filters don't work. Most adults don't need them; no one, hearing how filters actually function, really wants to be filtered. (Some people want others to be filtered, but that's a natural human tendency.) Most adults behave responsibly in libraries, and those that don't should be dealt with through policy and procedure.

Now how do we get off this petard we hoisted ourselves on?

Posted by kgs at February 12, 2004 11:34 AM

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Is there a particular model you see as a practical replacement for the age-neutral policy? In terms of moving away from the age-neutral policy (which I'm personally very biased towards), I see two big holes:

1) wholesale content restriction (such as that advocated by family values groups arguing that no depiction of LGBT?/queer characters is suitable for children, with very narrow, prejudicial exceptions); and

2) parental control at circulation (something along the lines of, 'my child is not allowed to check out books by these authors or on these subjects')

The second may not be very likely across a broad population, but I don't think it's improbable in some areas.

Posted by: Eli at February 12, 2004 12:53 PM

Starting with the latter issue--why is it our concern for parents to decide whether their children will have unfiltered Internet access? Don't we have a commitment to not be "in loco parentis?" I take that very literally--we don't step in between parent and child on a decision about content access.

Moving towards the former, if a library chooses a filter that only blocks sexually explicit content, and the library's limits are only for children by the children's parents--why is this an issue for us? The argument can be made that most commercial filters block more than just sex, even in their sex categories. But if it's an open-source filter, so the library is aware of what it is blocking, and the decision is left to the parent for the child, at that point, who are we harming?

Now, if a library chooses to block other content, or hands the decision off to a third party, or imposes this rule on adults--then we are discussing something different. But in the example above, who is harmed?

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at February 12, 2004 01:09 PM

Thank you for bringing up 'in loco parentis'.

If filters worked to the specifications of CIPA, effectively and without substantial overblocking, and libraries would go no further in stricting access, then I think we would be on more solid ground to discuss age-appropriate access.

But I think there are plenty of people who won't want to stop there ... the same people who don't want their children reading "Daddy's Roommate," "The Drowning of Stephen Jones," or any of the Harry Potter series won't want their children looking at Wiccan websites and the PFLAG or GSLEN site. And they're going to say, "This is harmful to my child, too. Why don't you block this at the library?" And if the library does, I think that is acting 'in loco parentis' and the child is harmed. Minors don't have the same range of First Amendment rights, but I do believe they have the right to information that may be controversial in their parents' eyes.

If the library doesn't restrict/filter access beyond the standards of what's generally considered 'harmful to minors,' that's fine, although we're left with less of a theoretical leg to stand on without an age-neutral policy. That may be fine in the short term, but in the long term, it will increase the pressure on libraries to restrict the access of children to otherwise protected material, print or online. And if libraries succumb, I think that is acting in loco parentis. If a parent tells a child, "Don't bring home any Harry Potter, I don't want you read that," that's not my business. If a parent comes to the library and tells me, "Make sure my child doesn't check out or access online any material about being gay," and I do it, I think I am acting in place of the parent, even if I'm enacting standards of use that don't apply to all users (or all minors).

I totally agree with you that libraries should hold on to the commitment of not being 'in loco parentis,' but I see moving away from the age-neutral policy as undermining that commitment and not strengthening it.

It seems like we have very different interpretations of 'in loco parentis' ... it's been a long time since I took any pre-law courses, so if I'm misrepresenting the common interpretation, please forgive me, it's not intentional.

Posted by: Eli at February 12, 2004 03:01 PM

Re: "filters don't work"

I continue to find it so curious how librarians, whose workplace has been completely revolutionized by technologies they had no part in creating, should suddenly set themselves up as arbiters over whether a given technology "works," i.e., now or ever.

Also, Karen, the question of whether people need or want filters has no bearing on whether or not they "work." As a matter of fact, they work quite well, as the Supreme Court has attested.

Posted by: Jack Stephens at February 12, 2004 05:28 PM

Re:”filters don't work”

Good point Jack.

What has happened here is that in the late ninety's some filters were cracked and their vocabulary was found “wanting” in the sense that there was some aggrandized selective blocking. Cybersitter blocking Peacefire is an example (one of many examples). This emerging information regarding what was contained in some filters secret lists fueled a heat up in the Intellectual Freedom issue (over blocking) and a general distrust from the anti-filtering atavists as well as the “outrageous assumption “ that all filters were so “agendized”.

Filters were renamed “censoreware” by their critics. They were then personified as something “attacking society” rather than something “defending society” which was the spirit of their original conception.

As filters evolved to eliminate over blocking primarily by adding a “click through” feature
and transparency the “intellectual freedom” argument became history. To my knowledge there is not one anti-filtering person who acknowledges this evolution. They are content to let the "old conclusions" rest. In their silence they allow the “meme” to be "dittoed" by the unthinking.

Hence, the mantra “filters don't work”.

Posted by: Bob Turner at February 16, 2004 01:07 PM