Posted by Lori Ayre on February 12, 2004

Sometimes when people talk about the problems with using filters in libraries they get some of the facts wrong or don't quite tell the whole story. I think it is because they want to make filters sound as perfectly awful as possible.

The fact is, there are very good reasons against the idea that libraries must filter. It's not necessary to exaggerate the negative aspects of filters to make the point that there are significant problems implementing them in a library setting.

That said, there are some scenarios where filters can be put to good use. The real trick is to understand how they work and use them appropriately -- not as the way to protect children from all the dangers they might encounter on the Internet (which CIPA implies can be done), but possibly as one tool.

The real problem with CIPA is that it mandates libraries use filters instead of allowing libraries to address the issues in the way that makes sense for their communities. And the fact that ALL computers must be filtered -- how is filtering a staff computer going to protect children from obscenity again?

Anyway, here are some facts to consider:

  1. There is no CIPA-compliant filter--by choosing any category to block, the library is blocking more content than would be legally defined as obscenity, child pornography or "harmful to minors."
  2. Many filter companies allow the administrator to see the URLs in each category -- its only the most well-known ones that don't.
  3. No filter is going to be 100% effective at preventing access to sexually explicit content, especially when the end user is trying hard to find it and/or is a even a little bit Internet savvy.
  4. Filters can prevent children from using online email, peer-to-peer file sharing, and downloading -- all of which are ways that pornography is distributed -- but the filters can't distinguish between when the file being shared is a homework assignment or a collection of obscene pictures.
  5. Some filters can block the visual depictions (images) on a page, and only do so for certain selected categories of content. So, for example, if the filter had a content category called "CIPA" one could choose to block images only in the CIPA category. The problem is that no filters have a CIPA category.
  6. Filtering staff computers isn't going to help protect children from accessing inappropriate content. And it just makes it more difficult for staff to monitor the accuracy of their filter and it costs the library more in "per-seat" licenses. This is criminal!
  7. There's no pracical difference between the requirement that an authorized representative can disable a filter for an adult versus that same adult disabling the filter for themselves. Therefore, what's wrong with mandating that each library offer some percentage of filtered computers to their patrons to ensure that adults always have the choice to browse filtered or unfiltered. Children should be able to browse unfiltered too -- if their parents have authorized them to do so. Giving patrons options eliminates the requirement that librarians get involved in turning off filters. First Amendment freedoms would be alive and well at the unfiltered Internet computers.
  8. No library has to buy an Internet filter that doesn't allow them to view the URLs being blocked. They can use open source filters such as Squidguard and Dan's Guardian -- which are free -- and maintain their own block list. Such lists can be created from lists publically available such as or other libraries using these same products.
  9. Maintaining your own block list of sites your patrons have accessed which you (or a designated representive) think are illegal is no more troublesome than installing an expensive Windows server with an expensive filter on it and worrying about maintaining the server, dealing with the issues associated with disabling the filter on request and correcting the overblocks. By taking responsibility for your own block list, you can virtually eliminate the need to unblock erroneously blocked pages, and ensure that any illegal sites being accessed by your patrons are blocked within a day a two by regularly analyzing the server's logs. Both approaches demand work if they are to be implemented responsibly. It's just a matter of deciding where to put your time and effort.