Before I begin, I would like to address some of my fellow presenters here tonight. I’d like you to know that many, if not all of us, consider ourselves feminists and are committed to ending the abuse of marginalized and vulnerable people in our professional practices and personal lives. However, we believe that the censorship of public access computers at London Public Library is not an effective solution to resolving this social issue.
First, the idea of deploying internet filtering software on public access computers violates both the Canadian Library Association’s and the American Library Association’s core values of intellectual freedom and access to information.
According to the Canadian Library Association’s position statement on intellectual freedom, “It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.” Indeed, London Public Library’s own Intellectual Freedom Policy reaffirms the Library’s endorsement of these values, promoting “balance and choice…in the provision of collections and internet services.” In fact, I’d venture that plenty of library materials, whether online or in print, might be considered controversial by some groups. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there.
In the United States, the American Library Association has been an outspoken advocate against filtering software in libraries. Their Library Bill of Rights clearly articulates that library materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation. Beyond this, the Bill of Rights asks libraries to actively “challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information”. For ALA, internet filtering has additionally become a constitutional issue. Filtering software that denies access to constitutionally protected information is directly in violation of the First Amendment. In a Canadian context, libraries should be aware of the public’s right, as embodied in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Bill of Rights, to have access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity, and intellectual activity (see CLA’s Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom).
It is our understanding that many of the criticisms leveled against LPL’s current policy concern the inadvertent viewing of “offensive” materials by other library patrons. To that end, we would like to propose a series of alternatives to expanding the use of filtering software at public workstations. These include ensuring that privacy screens are functional and deployed to all monitors, the rearrangement of workstation furniture to provide additional privacy for patrons, and regular monitoring of these areas by staff members to ensure that the Library’s Charter of Use and Rules of Conduct are being followed. Ultimately, we remain uncomfortable with the idea of taking social responsibility off of the individual and placing it in the hands of third-party software.
There are numerous scenarios wherein filtering software might prevent access to perfectly legitimate and legal materials. Studies have shown that filtering programs are notorious for preventing access to medical information. For instance, let’s imagine a user is concerned about a potential sexually transmitted infection and decides to look up photographs of various conditions for more information. (Photographs, that I might add, are probably also located in medical reference books in the library). It is imperative for the Library to remember the limitations of these software packages when making a decision on this policy.
On that note, is the Library prepared to make judgments about which materials are considered offensive? Is the Library prepared to let a third party who is unaccountable to the public determine what people can and cannot access at LPL? In closing, we strongly believe that users have a right to unfiltered access to information and remain firm advocates of the existing policy.