The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is ten years old. CIPA’s the act that first made librarians look like they were defending hard-core Internet porn viewing in public libraries. Congratulations on that milestone.
A lot of librarians still defend that, and they still look just as ridiculous to the general public as they did then. One sign that CIPA probably isn’t going away is the desperation of the arguments being used against it.
For example, here’s an attempt by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, an organization I generally approve of, to explain to us the “cost” of “censorship” thanks to CIPA. Needless to say, I’m unconvinced.
It does a good job of explaining CIPA to the uninitiated. For example, that it’s not a law covering all libraries, only those that accept certain kinds of federal support, and that the main goal was blocking pornographic images, not necessarily sexual content as such.
This is clearly stated on the FCC guide to CIPA: “The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).”
If libraries are blocking more than pictures accessible to minors, they still aren’t engaged in “censorship,” but they’re being overzealous in applying the law.
So let’s deal with that they don’t explain so well. First, there’s the loaded language of “censorship.” Libraries are under no obligation to provide every patron with access to every bit of information. They rarely buy pornographic magazines. Does this constitute censorship? No, it’s selection.
Actually, there are all sorts of material public and school libraries rarely buy. Scholarly books, for example. Are they censoring scholarly books?
Of course not, the books are merely out of scope, much like purveying pornographic images is out of scope.
The first alleged problems is that “Library filters block constitutionally protected content.” The claim is that they block content that’s not even pornographic, so they work a little too well.
Except pornographic images that don’t involve children are also constitutionally protected content. Thus, the EFF is saying it’s a problem for filters to block something that the filters were intended to block.
When the filters work too well, it’s a problem. It also seems to be a problem when they don’t work well enough. “Filters don’t actually effectively block obscene content.”
This is probably the worst argument here, because in any other context sensible people would realize it’s grasping for straws. The popular way to phrase this objection these days is “it lets the perfect stand in the way of the good.” That something doesn’t work perfectly is no argument against it, because in case you hadn’t noticed, nothing works perfectly, but filters can improve.
Despite the filters supposedly not working anyway, we’re told that “Kids are under-prepared for the open web.” Thus, libraries and schools should be educating children to protect themselves online rather than rely on filters.
This is also a pretty bad argument. Libraries and schools can already educate kids to protect themselves online. Nothing about filtering computers precludes them from doing that. The EFF is trying to claim it’s one or the other when it can easily be both.
Another alleged problem is that “We don’t know exactly what’s being blocked.” At least this argument isn’t pointless or self contradictory. Filter companies don’t say what they filter and libraries don’t say when they’ve filtered more than they need to.
Libraries could certainly be more transparent, but is it really that hard to guess what kinds of things are being filtered?
Supposedly, filtering pornographic images for children “goes against the ethical obligations of librarians.” This implies that it’s part of the ethical obligation of librarians to supply pornographic images for children, or at the very least that it’s not unethical in any way.
So would you say it’s part of the ethics of librarians to supply pornographic images to children?
And people wonder why librarians look so ridiculous when they rant about CIPA.
The problem for librarians is that there aren’t any good arguments against CIPA that don’t boil down to, “we believe children should be able to view pornographic images in public libraries.” You can call it the “intellectual freedom” of children to view porn images in libraries. Spin it any way you like. It still sounds ridiculous to ordinary people.
Libraries go too far in implementing CIPA? Then they should stop. Libraries aren’t transparent about what they block? Then let them be more transparent. Filters aren’t working properly? Work to improve the technology.
Those are problems with libraries and filters, not with CIPA itself. Libraries, filters, and even CIPA aren’t perfect, but people who don’t want children viewing porn in libraries – and that includes just about everyone – are satisfied with imperfection.