Fury over filters at public libraries

Citizens, librarians, parents battle over protecting kids and intellectual freedom

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

This site has been blocked on a computer screen

Jonas Hrebeniuk

THIS OFFENSIVE CUTLINE HAS ALSO BEEN BLOCKED! Internet filtering in the London public library is meant to censor harmful material. Good thing, too — God only knows what we might have written here.

The London Public Library confronted some tough issues when an internet-filtering pilot project came under fire in a public forum yesterday.

In the past, the LPL has used Netsweeper internet filtering software on youth computers to protect children from inadvertently viewing offensive material. In June the filters were extended to include adult desktops on a trial basis as part of a review of the LPL’s Internet Policy.

“The filtering software provided by Netsweeper allows the Library to select filter criteria,” Lindsay Sage, director of marketing and development the LPL said.

“In an effort to mitigate the risk of unintentional exposure to images that are inappropriate for a public space, extreme violence and sexually explicit images are being filtered.”

While many citizens feel using internet filters is a necessary measure to protect children and the community from viewing pornography, violence or hate materials, others feel the software breaches intellectual freedoms.

“Protecting children is everybody’s business,” Jane Fitzgerald, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society, said. “We have a moral requirement to restrict the possibility of children viewing pornography.”

Megan Walker, an employee at a battered women’s shelter in London, also supported the use of filtering software. She said permitting access to offensive material in a public space was “unacceptable.”

Former librarian Marie Blosh noted the issue was being framed unfairly.

“As adults and parents we automatically react to buzzwords like pornography and children,” she explained. “But the problem with this software is it limits access to information, not just pornography.”

Roma Harris, vice-provost and registrar at Western, said health materials may be banned by the software.

“I’m concerned that extending the use of filtering technology to computers used by adults may inadvertently limit access to some websites that are relevant to users who are in search of health information.”

“Although content control or ‘filtering’ software is intended to block access to objectionable websites, the practice of filtering is imprecise, no matter what products are used,” Harris continued.

This means library patrons may have trouble accessing information on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or gay and lesbian rights, which might be deemed offensive by the software.

“Teenagers questioning their own sexuality will not get the answers they need,” Blosh explained.

As a precaution, Walker suggested a “safety belt” be put in place, wherein patrons could ask the library staff to lift the ban if the content was deemed appropriate.

Blosh said the safety belt is not going to work.

“Having to ask for the site to be unblocked is embarrassing and intimidating,” she said. “These are potentially sensitive materials [for patrons].”

London resident Mike Armstrong said people, not software, must make moral judgments. Armstrong became involved in the debate after his personal website was banned by the filtering software.

Armstrong suggested the library and community take an active role in educating kids and adults on issues of pornography and violence.

University librarian Joyce Garnett said Western would not consider implementing an internet filter.

“We’re in a different environment,” she explained. “The University population is more aware of how to deal with sensitive materials.”

In response to the issue, information and media studies and law professor Sam Trosow is holding a one-hour seminar called “Internet Filtering in the Public Library: Censorship or Customer Service?”

The talk will be held Monday in North Campus Building, Room 293, 12-1 p.m.

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