Filtering Adult Workstations @ London Public Library

The management team of the London Public Library recommended that adult workstations continue to be filtered with a commercial internet filter (Netsweeper). They had done a pilot project to see what patrons and staff thought of having many adult workstations filtered. Not children’s workstations, but adult ones.

I like that they are transparent in making their reports available on their website (Internet Filtering Report, Appendix A (graph), Appendix B (Proposed revisions to Internet Policy), Appendix C (chart of URLs that were blocked and action taken), Appendix D (letters and feedback from the community) is not available online, Appendix E (titled: Themes (Viewpoints & Perceptions) in contrast to Realities on Filtering and Related Topics), Appendix F (results of staff survey)).

I have many issues with the content of the report.

First, pornography, sexually explicit images and extreme violence are cited as the reasons why filtering adult workstations is acceptable, yet they are not defined. What do they mean by pornography? Is it the same thing as something that is sexually explicit? What exactly is extreme violence? If they cannot define the reasons behind the push to filter it makes it difficult to discuss the issue. Not many people are going to argue that more pornography and extreme violence are a good thing.

Second, the questions for the staff survey are problematic. One of the questions is:

As a library worker, I think that filtering public internet workstations for pornography and extreme violence is ________.

Staff could reply with good, neutral, bad, and/or add comments. About 2/3 of staff answered good. Of course. The question is really flawed.

Third, Themes (Viewpoints & Perceptions) in contrast to Realities on Filtering and Related Topics (Appendix E) is really worth a read. Here’s one of my favourite bits:

Theme: London Public Libraryà ¢Ã¢”š ¬Ã¢”ž ¢s internet filtering is censorship.
REALITY: Censorship occurs when expressive materials, like books, magazines, films and videos, music or works of art, are removed or kept from public access because they are considered objectionable.

London Public Library is limiting access to sexually explicit website content by placing filters on the majority of machines in the library, in an effort to mitigate the risk of unintentional exposure by customers to these kinds of images, which are inappropriate in a public setting. Approximately, 20% of the workstations are not filtered. Therefore, unrestricted access is still available on dedicated workstations to all websites and information.

Similarly, London Public Library may only have one copy of a book in our collection and this same copy must be accessed by all cardholders, sometimes resulting in a waiting list.

I detest the idea that is the public library’s job to protect me from unintentionally seeing things that I may find offensive. I doubt that this is actually the intention though. I imagine that it is the the staff who are keeping me from viewing legal material that they find offensive or objectionable.A   I am confused by the illogical inclusion of the holds example.A   How is filtering content for adults similar to people waiting to sign out a book?A   I don’t get it.

I think there are also class politics at play. There is an arbitrary distinction between good (middle class) erotic art and bad (working class) pornography. Middle class people can also look at whatever they want on their home computers. If it’s legal, people who need to/want to use the library’s computers should be able to access it, without the additional layer of an internet filter, or a nosy staff member.

Third, they block the Little Sister’s bookstore’s website (see page 2 of Appendix C). Under the heading background “identified by customer” is listed and it was decided to keep blocking the site because of “pornography”. Part of Little Sister’s website has a gay male pay-per-view porn section, but there’s also information about their court case, and queer literature. While some people may also find the sex toys section offensive, they are not pornographic. There’s also no mention in the report of a heterosexist bias in filtering – filters often block out queer content, even if it isn’t about sex.

Fourth, I find the following statement from their internet policy confusing:

SCOPE: The London Public Library endorses as policy the Statement on Intellectual Freedom of the Canadian Library Association. At the same time, the London Public Library supports and is supported by the Canadian Copyright Act, the Criminal Code of Canada and other legislation governing access to expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity.

The wording of this is very unclear. I’m not sure if they are suggesting that the Statement on Intellectual Freedom is incompatible with Canadian laws.

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With this type of unbalanced report, I don’t imagine that the Board would be equipped to decide to not have filters on adult workstations. I’m sure we will learn of their decision in the next couple of days.

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