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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Ten Years of CIPA and the Tired Arguments Against It

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.



  1. Ionized Librarian says:

    I was shouted down by Judith Krug one time at a library conference because I wanted to talk through the official position of “not censoring the internet” to see if anyone thought there were any problems with it. I’m sure Judith was a very nice person in general. Just not that time.

    • @Ionized Librarian, I would love if you would write up that experience for anonymous publication on my SafeLibraries blog. Please consider doing that. I know OIF refuses to discuss the issues with me, but this is the first I heard of it refusing to discuss the issue with librarians, at a library conference, no less.

  2. I wonder if the EFF would tell us that children should be able to drink, drive, smoke and go to strip clubs too. I mean we can’t teach them the dangers and responsibilities of those activities AND stop them from doing them right? Otherwise kids will be under-prepared for the open world.

  3. Well said AL. I don’t really like CIPA, but honestly that is more because I do not like accepting money with strings attached…

  4. AL, Barbara Jones of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom was on a radio show responding to NCRL library director Dean Marney’s library filtering wins in state and federal courts in Washington state. Backed into a corner by his successes, she admitted 1) filters work, 2) they work well, 3) they no longer block health-related information, and 4) claiming they block breast cancer is an old excuse. Now, of course, ALA OIF tells people Bradburn v. NCRL applies only to Dean Marney’s libraries and no others. The case holds that not only may porn be blocked, but it need not be unblocked even upon request, and a library can check a web site request ahead of time to ensure it complies with library policy. And ALA wants librarians to think that should be applied only in Dean Marney’s libraries.

    I raised this issue on blog of the ALA’s leading filtering technology expert, Librarian in Black, and she removed the comment. EFF linked to her work as well (wherein she mentions SafeLibraries). When I challenged her for her censorship, she attacked me personally and falsely, then removed all my other comments from her entire blog, but left up her false, personal attack. As @Ionized Librarian revealed above, the people pushing the “filters don’t work” story simply refuse to hear the truth nor let others hear the truth.

    I’m sensing most librarians oppose ALA OIF’s policy on filtering but remain silent out of fear of adverse job action or silenced as illustrated by @Ionized Librarian.

    Judith Krug brought the anything goes policy from the ACLU and forced it on the ALA. She’s gone now. I hope librarians will finally lose their fear of her and start restoring common sense to the organization. Your story, AL, and @Ionized Librarian’s response begins to give me hope.

  5. AL, I see you put out the Safe Libraries bait again. Is this what happens when people stop commenting on your posts?

  6. Captain Librarian says:

    Actually, what I don’t like is being forced into any sort of an “in loco parentis” role. It can raise parental assumptions about the level of monitoring the library will expend on their children. I’ve always taken the position that the primary control on what a child views on a computer should be a parent sitting next to them.

    • @Captain Librarian, I think you are making a great point here. Too many parents let their 5 year old kid wander about the library while they are on a computer, thinking that the library is safe and that employees will watch their kid. I am a librarian, not a babysitter.

    • If you’re saying “kids aren’t safe here” or “it’s your job to keep your kids safe here, not mine,” I don’t think those are particularly compelling messages. If you think that it’s true that the library isn’t safe for children and you work in the library, don’t you have a responsibility you do everything you can to make sure that children are safe while they are in the library?

    • There is a difference between saying that the library is relatively safe, but that we can’t keep an eye out for every child in the library, and in addition, our policy is to make sure that children have a parent or guardian to accompany children. Besides, it is a public place, not all public places are 100% safe and it is not my responsibility to watch over one individual child. Use some common sense here. I will gladly do what I can to keep a child safe, but I also have a job to do, and babysitting is not in that description.

    • Babysitting kids at the library? No way. We only babysit the homeless, the impoverished, the clueless – – but they have to be adults.

  7. The problem with filters is that they are often not-so-transparent about what they block, and why. Look at the story of the Salem, Missouri library whose filters blocked “occult” (read: minority religious) sites – that was from last year, not some distant past where filters didn’t have the bugs worked out yet. (Fortiguard and Netsweeper are two filters which often block information about minority religions under the heading ‘occult’.) My children shouldn’t have to ask the librarian to unblock information about their own religion.

    I don’t have a problem with limiting access for porn or gambling sites on children’s computers, but as a parent, I have to say that filters aren’t a substitute for parental supervision, and libraries shouldn’t be in the business of parenting other people’s children.

  8. I don’t understand why some frame the discussion as a choice between filters and parental supervision. When we talk about reducing injuries and deaths related to automobiles we don’t argue that seat belts are a poor substitute for safe driving habits. We don’t argue that seat belts under-protect us and overly inhibit our movements, providing a false sense of security. We use seat belts and safe driving habits and speed limits limits and vehicle design and technology and everything else we can think of to make driving safe. Internet filters may not be a substitute for parental guidance but they are not mutually exclusive either.

    Harmonyfb, if a filter blocks a site, even a site related to your children’s religion, it’s not an excessive burden to ask the mistake to be corrected. The First Amendment provides guarantees related to speech and religion, but does not provide freedom from inconvenience.

  9. we don’t argue that seat belts are a poor substitute for safe driving habits.

    That’s a bit of false equivalence, isn’t it?

    Harmonyfb, if a filter blocks a site, even a site related to your children’s religion, it’s not an excessive burden to ask the mistake to be corrected.

    I disagree. For a public library to filter some religious sites but not others (and the criteria for those filters are never made public – go ahead, ask Netsweeper how they determine which sites go under ‘occult’ – they won’t answer. Often, those companies are connected to right-wing groups who have a vested interest in keeping others from learning about non-Judeo-Christian faiths.) amounts to public endorsement of one religion over another. Not to mention that unblocking it for one kid doesn’t help everyone else for whom the information is still blocked.

    When was the last time you had to ask a librarian to unblock a Christian site? When was the last time a librarian refused to unblock a Christian site and then threatened to turn the patron in to the “authorities” for viewing it? Because that happened, here in the US, at a public library just last year to a patron whose religious surfing was blocked by such a filter.

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