In local communities around the world, public libraries are caught in a catch-22 bind where it comes to the Internet. Some parents want libraries to block "inappropriate content" that is available on the Internet. At the same time, librarians and free speech advocates have serious concerns about censorship.
David Jones, a computer science professor at McMaster University, and president of Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC) recently addressed the board of directors at the Burlington Public Library. He planned to persuade the board that it would be impractical, unnecessary, and improper to filter Internet content to remove material that people might find controversial or offensive.
According to Dr. Jones, there were three presentations from the public, including his own. David Auger and Al MacIntosh spoke about their concerns as parents that their children might be exposed to adult material. "It came out at the meeting that these parents are both police officers, so their authoritarian attitude makes some sense now", says Jones. Chief librarian Wendy Schick said that to her knowledge there were no previous complaints from library users about access to inappropriate material.
"Initially everyone was thinking of censoring and blocking", said Jones, when I spoke to him about the event. Ironically, the complaints had little to do with access. The parents were more concerned that their children might catch a glimpse of where someone else might be surfing. The difference is between access and exposure. A concrete suggestion was made to set up privacy screens, encourage librarians to participate in oversight to discourage abuses, and have people show library cards or book appointments before gaining access to library workstations.
At some other local libraries, the computer is located in a public area with the screen visible to the reference librarian. If a potential problem arises, a librarian is available to ask the surfer if they need assistance. This provides a subtle reminder that the computer is in a public place. Peer pressure, rather than censorship functions to persuade people to behave appropriately.
The critical point Jones makes focuses on the dependence we have on the Internet and its social and intellectual value. People cannot afford computers in many communities around the world, and rely on library-based Internet access. They may have legitimate interest in material that is inappropriate for children or offensive to other adults. Jones puts the chilling effect of library censorship in clear terms: "If we dumb-down the Net to a level that is appropriate for five-year-olds we will no longer have an 'Information Superhighway', instead, we'll have a digital Sesame Street. That's not the solution."