posted Mar 21, 2001

ACLU and ALA fighting Library Filters Censorship3/21/2001; 11:47:11 AM This has been reported recently by many media sources, but I was holding off until I could find the actual complaints. Here they are: The ACLU's complaint is at and the ALA's complaint is at .I've been thinking about library filters lately (it came up on the weblaw list) and I think the answer lies in neither approach. Why do we [think we] need library filtering? There are two reasons: One, we don't want "little Johnny" stumbling upon inappropriate content, and we don't want the other library patrons subjected to inappropriate content. "Inappropriate content" applies to both reasons, but they are quite seperate reasons in reality.Most filters use a blacklist to filter out inappropriate content, thus trying to kill both birds with one stone. The blacklist is created by humans, and thus is inevitably inaccurate, out of date, and highly subjective, because being listed on the blacklist requires an active judgement call, "This site is inappropriate." It does such a horrible job of filtering out that inappropriate content that it should not even be considered for the job. Blacklists can't even do a good job in computer science theory; as you might expect the real world implementations are even worse.There are two prongs to the problem, I think two prongs to the solution are necessary as well. First, I think Johnny should be protected by a whitelist approach, not a blacklist approach. (A whitelist is a list of permitted sites, and you can only visit those permitted sites.) A government provided whitelist is much more reliable then a blacklist. It's not 100% (whitelisted sites might be hacked, bought by another party, etc.), but it should be practical to do well in excess of 95% reliability.To be listed on a whitelist, a site need merely be useful and appropriate. Not being listed on a whitelist implies nothing about the site. After all, what are the odds iRights will show up on a whitelist any time soon? I'm too small to care about. This eliminates the debates over the inaccurate catagorization of sites.You might find the suggestion of a whitelist approach strange coming from a ''free speech'' activist like myself, but there are two reasons I think this is acceptable. First, like it or not, the "little Johnny"'s we are talking about do not have much in the way of free speech anyhow. Two, libraries are whitelists. You can not obtain arbitrary content from a library, you can only get what they have there, or can get there. Only approved content gets into a library anyhow, and a library has some sort of standards for approving that content. Whitelists are essentially already considered acceptable for libraries and children, even if the reason was economic reality rather then philosophy.The other prong is the protection of the other patrons. That's actually doable right now, and needs no new law. People over the age of 18 should be able to request unfettered access, or sign their children up for it. At that point, all controls are off. But most of things people are worried about... "What if some pervert comes in and views porn where everyone can see it?"... are already illegal. That's sexual harassment, or harassment of some form... there may not be a court precedent for it, but it would not be difficult, I think. What more could a prosecutor ask for then a "sexual harassment" charge?Tools can be made available to make this easier, like making it easy for the librarians to monitor the contents of the computer screens. Mandate some minimal level of supervision if you like. But if Big Johnny wants to visit the KKK's web site, he should be able to... just as Big Johnny can probably check out books on the KKK too. Just because one visits a site does not mean one agrees with it! Making a big deal or using that site to harass people would be, well, harassment... same as if Big Johnny started thumping on the book in the middle of the library and telling all the African-American patrons about how right the KKK is. That's already harassment, why create new, untested laws for just this particular kind of harassment?When I look at the issue with clarity, and seperate the parts rather then mix them all together, I find I'm not certain which of these problems the conservatives pushing this intend to address. I think that for a lot of them, these two problems are inseperably confounded together, and they'd be happy to filter adult's access to the 'net (assuming filters work, which they are willing to lower their standards for if that's what it takes). This indeed should be fought, and in this case I support the ACLU and the ALA... even though they'd probably fight my scheme with equal vigor


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