Good evening. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you this evening on the important issue of Internet access in the library and the concerns that have been raised about controversial content.
My name is David Jones and I am a computer science professor at McMaster University, and president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and the right to privacy in cyberspace. But perhaps most importantly, I have for a number of years been a card-carrying patron of the Burlington Public Library.
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.
The concern that some parents have raised, about children being exposed to what they consider to be inappropriate material on a computer screen, is certainly not unique to Burlington. Just this past summer, the Dundas Public Library dealt with a similar complaint. Rather than resorting to censorship, they found they could deal with the concerns by using a little creativity and common sense.
For instance, they made sure the computer was in a public area with the screen visible to the reference librarian. If a potential problem arises, I do not think it is unreasonable for a librarian to ask a patron if they are having success in finding what they are looking for. In addition to helping people who may want assistance, this kind of interaction provides a gentle reminder that the computer is in a public place, visible to our neighbours. Peer pressure, rather than censorship, can be very effective in persuading people to behave appropriately.
I think we should realize, however, that we really do want adults using the library to be able to view sensitive or potentially offensive materials, so in order to accomodate those people perhaps a computer screen in a more private area would make sense as well.
Another step adopted by the Dundas Public Library is the use of a sign-up sheet. By asking to see a library card (or other ID), much in the same way that one would borrow a book, the librarians can effectively discourage mischief or vandalism. And in the same way that I trust librarians to keep my book-borrowing habits private, I trust that my web-surfing habits will be kept private as well.
Yet another step that could be taken here is to focus on facilitating access to the kinds of sites that would be most appropriate for children, rather than focusing on blocking access. For instance, the popular "Yahoo!" search engine has a version intended to help children called "Yahooligans!". The federal government has funded something called SchoolNet, which has links to all kinds of sites that children might find useful when researching school projects. ... and so on. A library home page that had a collections of such links would be useful indeed.
Even if this board decided to block access to controversial content on the Net, you would quickly realize how difficult this is to accomplish in practice. The filtering tools that exist today, such as NetNanny, CyberPatrol, and so on, are still very clumsy and crude. A naive attempt to protect minors from female nudity and breasts, for example, often leads to the unfortunate result that health information about breast cancer, or breast-feeding is off limits too. At the same time, the amount and diversity of content on the Internet continues to grow and change at such a rate that, practically speaking, it impossible for these filtering tools to maintain an up-to-date list of where all the "bad stuff" is.
But what if the board decided create a black-list of web sites anyway? Who would decide on the criteria? Would any of the following items be off limits? Sex education, safe sex, abortion, gay youth support groups, rape counselling, drug abuse information, information about how to make gun-powder and bombs, neo-nazis, and so on. If you let it be known there is a list, I hazard a guess that you'd find interest groups lining up down the street with their own idiosyncratic list of what should be banned.
In some discussion I have heard the view expressed that perhaps since the library is a publicy-funded institution, it might be duty-bound to exercise control over what the public has access to.
Well, to the contrary, I recall that in Canada we have a certain legal document called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which places limits on government interference with the public's right to freedom of expression, and the right to read.
I think we need to step back and ask ourselves about the role of public libraries in today's society. Traditionally, librarians have served an important role as "information intermediaries". It can be an intimidating experience to walk into a building that is filled with books, magazines, and newspapers on almost every conceivable topic. 'Where can I find a book that will help me understand daily life in ancient Greece?', a young schoolchild might wonder. Where can I learn about pteradactyls? or the Canadian who invented the game of basketball? or instructions for building fancy kites I could enter in the Burlington kite festival? Librarians know the answers to these questions.
With the Internet, and with more and more information and communication occurring online, the need for skilled librarians is greater than ever, to act as intermediaries in assisting the rest of us to use sophisticated search engines and to navigate through the hundreds of millions of web pages in a way that we manage to find what interests us.
Public libraries will also play an important role in achieving the goal of "universal access". Not everyone in Burlington has the several thousand dollars it costs to have the latest computer technology in their home, and even if they do, they may not yet have enough experience with computers to be able to use a computer effectively. 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.
Now, nobody here is going to dispute the need to protect children, and I certainly don't think anyone here wishes to interfere with the right of parents to determine what is appropriate for their own young children. However, when we speak of controlling access to the Internet, we're really talking about the possibility of controlling what *other* people's children can see. Furthermore, since we're apparently concerned about what young children might inadvertently catch a glimpse of on a computer screen, we need to realize that we're really talking about controlling content on the Internet even for adults. If we dumb-down the Net to a level that is appropriate for five-year-olds, we will no longer have an "Information Superhigway"; instead, we'll have a digital Sesame street. That's not the solution.
I think we should recognize that librarians have for a very long time been perfectly capable of striking an appropriate balance between providing access to a very broad spectrum of materials, and yet respecting the concerns of parents. After all, how different is it *really*, if someone catches a glimpse of scantilly clad women in the latest "swimsuit edition" of Sports Illustrated magazine, or looks over my shoulder when I am reading *this* very large book filled with pictures of nude and erotic sculptures by Rodin?
I'm not trying to dismiss the concern, I'm only observing that our skilled librarians have already developed, and will continue to refine, practical ways of addressing these concerns, without resorting to censorship.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this evening. I have a copy of my speaking notes and other related material about libraries and Electronic Frontier Canada for anyone who is interested.