Good evening. My name is Dr. David Jones. I'm a computer science professor at McMaster University and I'm also president of Electronic Frontier Canada, an organization with members from all across the country that seeks to protect freedom of expression and the right to privacy in cyberspace.
But most importantly, I'm also a member of the Burlington Public Library, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you on the important issue of Internet access in the library and the concerns that have been raised about controversial web pages.
I am here this evening because I would like to persuade you that it would be impractical, unnecessary, and improper to filter Internet content to remove material that some people might find controversial or offensive.
There has been considerable discussion in the media, including newspaper, radio, and television, about the possibility of young people being exposed to material on computer screens in the library that their parents deem inappropriate. In my view, the coverage has been out of proportion with the remarkably small number of incidents over the past two years.
The general proposal before this Board, if I understand it correctly, is to dumb down the level of Internet Access in the Burlington Public Library so that it only contains material appropriate for a 5-year-old child. Instead of this public library providing a much-needed "Onramp to the Information SuperHighway", it would become a kind of "Digital Sesame Street". ... certainly harmless, but also of greatly diminished value and utility to the community.
It is in the spirit of this notion of a "Digital Sesame Street" that I would like to say, ... this presentation is brought to you, like they say on Sesame Street, by the letter "U" and the number "50,000".
I think it would be a big mistake if this library were to decide to apply different rules to people who are different ages. Is a 17-year-old a young adult, or an overgrown child? Would rules designed to shelter a 5-year-old be appropriate for a teenager? And besides age, what how can you judge the emotional and intellectual maturity of a young person? Besides being a nightmare for staff to implement, I think these are clearly decisions that should be left in the hands of parents.
I also think it would be a big mistake if the library started applying different criteria to material depending on the medium, whether it is a book, a videotape, or an Internet web page. If something is too much to be tolerated on a computer screen, then it should also be too much to be tolerated on a video screen, or in a big colourful book. Conversely, if material is protected by the notion of intellectual freedom when it sits on a shelf in the stacks, then it must be equally protected when it is stored as a computer file on a web site.
Whatever your decision about Internet Access may be, I urge you to think carefully about the consequences of applying exactly the same rules and criteria to all materials in the library collection.
The notion of "Universal Access" is an important public policy objective in Canada. Just as telephones, once a novelty, have become an essential and integral part of today's society, so too is access to the Internet becoming essential.
Despite the growing popularity of the Internet, Statistics Canada reports that only about 20% of Canadian households have the financial resources and the right combination of a computer, modem, software, and know-how to access the Internet. This means that the vast majority of Burlington residents do not have easy access to the Internet, except through their public library.
It was a recognition of the important role that this library plays in the community that led to the recent provincial grant for $9,600 to upgrade library computers for higher speed Internet access. What a tragedy it would be for this money to be diverted from its intended purpose to provide *less* Internet access instead of more.
None of us wants a society divided into information haves and have-nots. Through this library, everyone in Burlington can access the Internet, and it is important that this access not be limited by some arbitrary criteria about what some people might find offensive. We shouldn't treat our neighbours who access the Internet through the library as second-class citizens.
50,000 is the number of hours of Internet Access per year at this library. For those who want to do the math, that's 50 weeks times 20 terminals times 50 hours per week equals 50,000 hours.
I think it is critically important to recognize just how much the Internet is being used in the library. It is tremendously popular.
Among literally hundreds of thousands of useful, productive, and informative Internet sessions over the past few years there have been *two* incidents where some parent was offended that their young child inadvertently caught a glimpse of something they thought was inappropriate. *Two* incidents. Let's not lose sight of the scope of this "problem".
Let's also keep in mind that what prompted these two complaints was not that children were at the terminals, calling up inappropriate material, but rather that children saw what someone else was viewing.
In this sense, the use of "privacy screens" might be a practical remedy that directly addresses the circumstances that led to these complaints.
I think other measures that have been proposd, such as getting parents to sign permission forms or censoring some kinds of controversial content, are simply not directed at the source of the problem.
$50,000 is my estimate of the minimum cost of implementing a parental permission form for Internet Access at the library.
One of the suggestions that has been discussed is the idea that the library should adopt some kind of permission form, similar to one used in schools, signed by parents and children, that staff would keep on file.
Let's see ... with approximately 50,000 households in the community served by this library, that adds up to a lot of paper work to be printed, mailed out, collected, processed, and filed. At just a dollar per form, that's $50,000.
Besides, enforcing this "contract" would be a nightmare. What may work in a classroom with the same small group of kids, day after day, simply won't work in a library setting. Every single time a child approaches an Internet terminal, a librarian would have to intervene, ask for identification, and then cross-check that with permission forms already on file. Without permission, the child would have to be denied access, even if they only wanted to learn about dinosaurs. And what if their signed permission form is on file at Tansley Woods, but today the child is here at the Central Branch?
It has been suggested that the library might deal with concerns over controversial web sites by blocking access using filtering software. 50,000 is a good estimate of the number of web sites that library staff will have to add to their black list of censored web sites, just to begin to satisfy these two police officers.
And of course, once the various interest groups in the community hear that there is a black list, they'll be lining up down the street to add their own idiosyncratic list of criteria for deciding what's naughty or nice, and their own list of web sites they don't want their neighbours to see.
Once we have a black list, we can't possibly stop at plain old pornography, can we?
What about the following kinds of information?
$50,000 is my estimate of the cost of the first civil suit that will be brought against this library when it fails to prevent a young person from accessing material that some parent finds offensive.
If this Board takes upon itself, as a matter of policy, the role of blocking access to children unless there is explicit written permission from parents, - or - as a matter of policy, takes on the role of a newspaper editor in filtering access to inappropriate material on the Internet, there will inevitably be some incident that slips through the cracks.
When this happens, the Board will have left itself open to a civil suit. The lawyer filing the suit will say that the parents relied upon the library's formal policy to block or filter access and the library failed to live up to its obligations and is therefore liable for the resulting harm, emotional distress, and damages.
Right now, the library is categorically distinct from public schools, which act "in loco parentis". If a child walks out of a school and into the street and gets hurt, then the school is at fault because they are expected to play a parental role of protecting the safety and well-being of children in their care. When a child walks out of the library, however, librarians don't go running after them. Librarians are not babysitters.
I don't think we want our librarians to *become* babysitters.
I think this Board should think very carefully before it considers making a promise to the community about blocking or filtering access that it cannot possibly keep.
My family had some sad news recently. My grandfather, Dennis Jones, passed away. He was 85 and one of the things he left me were the medals he was given after serving with the infantry in the 2nd world war. He was lucky, of course, because he came home. There were several other young men in my family who would have been my uncles and cousins, if they had come home.
It's sometimes hard for a young person like me to comprehend what they were fighting for, so long ago, but I think we can get some understanding of the fundamental rights and freedoms they were fighting to preserve when we take a look at a document that was signed by dozens of countries, including Canada, on December 10, 1948.
Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, ...
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."The Canadian Library Association adopted a similar statement on Intellectual Freedom in 1974.
The Canadian Library Assocation approved a statement more specific to computer networks in 1994.
The Ontario Library Assocation also adopted its own statement in 1990.
Finally, even the Burlington Library, in its own statement of Mission and Values, says:
I'd like to turn now to the "May 15th Staff Report on Internet Access at Burlington Public Library".
First I want to commend the library staff for taking this issue very seriously and for being thoughtful and thorough in investigating this complex issue. This report, the previous one from February, and all the measures they've planned, implemented, and evaluated demonstrate the highest level of professionalism.
Having said that, I'd like to make a few observations:
(A) The Report says that idea of using permission forms is unworkable because it would be far too labour intensive. I agree with this.
I also think it is important to recognize that the specific wording in the permission forms in inappropriate for used in a library. Both the public and Catholic school boards prohibit students from looking at any material that is simply "inaccurate". Heck, we'd have to clear the shelves if we removed all the books that contained errors. These forms also prohibit students from accessing "offensive, profane, sexually oriented, or sexist" material. Many people would agree that magazines like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition are "offensive" and sexist", but they certainly don't come remotely close to being illegal, or even offending community standards. These forms also carry the restriction that the Internet can only be accessed for "educational purposes", but since a library is not a school, that is certainly an appropriate restriction library patrons.
(B) The Report also makes what I think is a glaring error by suggesting it should comply with the "spirit" of ByLaw number 169-1993 which places restrictions on how adult magazines may be displayed in retail establishments. This ByLaw does not apply to the library. It is a mistake to act as if there is an obligation to comply with this ByLaw. If the Board is interested, I can provide a list of half a dozen statues that do not apply to the library with which some people may think the library should nevertheless comply.
No, if Burlington City Council wishes to pass a ByLaw restricting Internet Access in the Public Library, then I invite the councillors present tonight to draft such a ByLaw, allow public debate, and then put the matter to a vote of elected represenatives. To misapply a ByLaw in a setting for which is was never intended is wrong.
(C) Although the Report talks about filtering software, I find it puzzling that no mention is made of the detailed evaluation that library staff made of a filtering service known as "CleanNet". This company provided access to this service and staff tried it out for a number of days. I think their hands-on experience would be of interest to this Board.
If I am not mistaken, and I am sure that library staff could clarify this, the 'CleanNet' filtering service was found to be entirely inappropriate for a number of reasons.
The criteria of which web sites were blocked was entirely out of the hands of library staff and completely left up to people at CleanNet. To my knowledge, CleanNet was unable to provides detailed criteria for determining which sites were censored, and indeed their decisions seemed rather arbitrary. Furthermore, when asked to provide a list of the approximately 50,000 web sites which were off limits, the company refused. Library staff had to resort to "guessing" which sites might be off limits. Results of such random attempts at web sites revealed a rather haphazard mix of legitimate sites that were found to be blocked, but also controversial sites that remained unblocked. It was also not clear that library staff would be able to persuade CleanNet to unblock some useful sites or to block sites they might deem inappropriate.
Furthermore, as a computer scientist, I mentioned to library staff that it would be trivial to provide a "detour" around the blocking mechanism constructed by CleanNet -- a web site which library patrons could visit, which would act as an intermediary and route controversial web pages around the CleanNet blocking mechanism. As a technical exercise, I constructed just such detour mechanism one afternoon, and library staff confirmed that it worked as I described -- providing access to web sites that CleanNet intended to be off limits. This fundamental flaw in the CleanNet service was reported in a Hamilton Spectator article on February 16th entitled, "Software solution may not help Burlington Library".
In the same way that teenagers are often the best at knowing how to program your VCR, the same will be true for Internet filters. The only people who will be able to get around the CleanNet filtering mechanism will be teenagers, which kinds of defeats the purpose.
I'd like to wrap up my presentation by making 4 recommendations to this Board.
Furthermore, library staff should be directed to amend their report by including their findings on the specific filtering service, CleanNet, that they have already evaluated, plus a proper assessment of the feasibility, cost, and effectiveness of this approach so that the Board could make an informed decision at the June meeting.