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In honor of EFF’s 404 Day, a day of action against internet censorship in libraries, a discussion about content filtering is in order. Libraries applying for and accepting certain kinds of federal funding are allowing hyper-restrictive internet content blockers on public computers in order to comply with CIPA, a federal pro-censorship statute. One of these federal fund is the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, commonly known as e-rate, a program administered by the Federal Communications Commission. Libraries participating in e-rate receive discounts on internet access and other telecommunications. The other fund belongs to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, or IMLS, and provides funding for libraries through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) a grant program used for a wide range of highly essential library services, from job training programs to subscription databases. Both of these are popular funding sources for libraries. And they both require CIPA compliance.
CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, is a draconian statute aimed at protecting children from “pornographic” or “obscene” internet content by forcing participating libraries to install filters on public computers. Though technically it states that filters can be disabled for adult patrons, it’s not clear how much this is encouraged or promoted. And, truly, how many patrons are too embarrassed to speak up and request the removal of a filter? A friend of mine who dealt with content blockers at her library said that the only requests she’s ever received to remove filters are for benign, obvious errors, “like cross-stitch pattern sites” which are frequent triggers for the blocked keywords. YouTube and PornHub worked like a dream, however, as the filters are notoriously bad at multimedia content. A study conducted by the San José Public Library determined that the filters straight up DO NOT WORK. But what do we expect when we allow private companies to define what is “obscene” or “pornographic”? These companies do not serve our patrons. They serve their own shareholders, and often, their own political interests. The anti-censorship activists Peacefire did an experiment where they whipped up some fake websites filled with anti-LGBT epithets and sent them on to one of the biggest filtering software companies, Cyber Patrol (a quick poll of some librarian friends who work with filtered computers at their libraries revealed that at least 2 out of 10 of those libraries were using Cyber Patrol). Cyber Patrol agreed to block those sites as hate speech, but when Peacefire revealed they’d lifted the text directly from Focus on the Family, Cyber Patrol ignored requests to block the ultra-conservative organization’s website as well.
Though a US Supreme Court case ruled CIPA constitutional in 2003, other courts have disagreed. We must continue to push back against this repressive act, exposing how it restricts our freedom of speech. The EFF has supported us in this fight since CIPA was enacted in 2000. ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom offers more tips on combatting CIPA in your library, and the ACLU runs a number of anti-censorship projects. We are not alone in the fight for internet free speech in libraries. We must say no to unconstitutional anti-speech legislation, and to private companies gunning for public dollars that restrict the rights of our patrons. Together, let’s push away funding that comes at the expense of our basic rights, and force this unconstitutional act out of our libraries.