Ten Years of CIPA: Free Speech and Library Internet Filters

September 16, 2013
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access-deniedThe issue of Internet filtering in school and public libraries has been getting a lot of attention lately, as we mark ten years since the Children’s Internet Protection Act was instituted. Unfortunately, the news is not good: Filtering software remains largely ineffective, underblocking the content it’s actually intended to target while overblocking sites that should be accessible. Moreover, confusion reigns among library staff, governing boards and administrators, IT departments, and the general public as to what the law actually requires. Read on for a summary of the problems and some tips on how to ensure that you can freely access the Internet in your local library.

CIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 to “address concerns about children’s access to obscene or harmful content over the Internet.” It requires libraries and schools that receive federal E-rate discounts or grants under the Library Services and Technology Act to deploy filters on all computers, even those used by staff. These filters are supposed to block all images and videos deemed to be child pornography or obscene. In addition, on computers used by minors they must block multimedia that is “harmful to minors,” a poorly defined legal term that encompasses “sexually explicit images that adults have a legal right to access but lacking any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” Adults who affirm they will only use the Internet for lawful purposes may ask to disable the filter completely, or to circumvent it in order to view content that’s been wrongfully blocked. After CIPA was signed into law by President Clinton, it was immediately challenged in court by the American Library Association, which contended that it infringed on patrons’ First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court rejected this argument because of the provision for disabling the filter, and CIPA was implemented in 2003.

The problem, however, is that many filters are pretty terrible at their jobs. In a blog post for the Utica, New York Observer-Dispatch, recently retired library director Judy Jerome pointed out:

Even in our mature internet world, filters are incapable of applying peculiarly human definitions in content analysis, and…they are easily circumvented by intelligent, determined users and content providers. So, briefly, filters can block not only objectionable sites but also innocent sites which may employ words on a hit list. Then there are the creators of the filters themselves who may make decisions about what is blocked based on political or profit motives.

So while the law is constitutionally iffy on paper, the way it’s often applied in practice is much worse. Filters are commercial products like any other piece of software, and the companies that make them sometimes have political or religious biases that affect what ends up on their “blacklists” and “whitelists.” Moreover, those lists are often insufficiently transparent even to the staff who administer them and can’t easily be fine-tuned. As mentioned above, CIPA only requires blocking multimedia rather than entire websites, but filters often don’t bother with such distinctions because they’re better at detecting text on the page than content in image and video files. And despite the Supreme Court’s faith in library patrons’ fortitude, many who encounter a blocked message while browsing the Internet simply give up rather than asking to have the site unblocked, for myriad reasons: embarrassment, intimidation, unfamiliarity with filtering technology and the terms of CIPA, or simply a lack of time. Some staff also exhibit a shameful ignorance regarding CIPA, as when a library director in Salem, Missouri, last year told a patron who’d asked to have sites on Wicca and Native American religions unblocked that she “had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities.” (She absolutely did not, as the ACLU made clear with a lawsuit.)

In light of all this, CIPA obviously does infringe upon adults’ First Amendment rights, even if only because it’s misapplied. But until it can be revisited by Congress (not likely) or the Supreme Court (slightly more likely), we’re stuck with it. So what can you do to ensure that the Internet at your local library is as open as possible under the law? First of all, says Rainey Reitman in a post on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Deeplinks blog, find out just what the library’s policy regarding Internet access is. Many libraries that can afford to do so will forgo E-rate discounts and LSTA grants specifically so they don’t have to comply with CIPA, so filtering may not even be an issue where you live. For instance, the San Jose Public Library decided not to filter after assessing studies published over the past decade and finding that on average, filters are only about 40% accurate at blocking multimedia. But for libraries in rural or impoverished areas, federal discounts and grants may be the only way they can offer public computers and broadband access at all. So if your library does filter, don’t hesitate to ask for “overblocked” content to be unblocked, or simply for the entire filter to be disabled before you use the computer. Unfortunately this is where you could encounter resistance from librarians or other staff, who may not be familiar with the disabling provision in CIPA. Feel free to cite ALA: “…libraries must turn off the filter upon request by an adult, without inquiring into the adult’s ‘purpose’ for disabling the software. In fact…any library that burdens patrons’ rights through an improper or restrictive application of CIPA’s disabling provision could face a future lawsuit.” Ask to speak with a department head or library administrator if necessary.

As with many laws that attempt to regulate technology and the Internet, CIPA is both unrealistic regarding what it can actually accomplish, and woefully outdated only a decade after it was first implemented. As Reitman points out, children who are only able to access the Internet at school or the library (yes, they exist) may reach adulthood without learning how to “use good judgment, common sense, and basic precautions when browsing the web” because their CIPA-mediated experience never required it. So while the law unnecessarily curtails adults’ Internet access, it also does a disservice to the children it’s supposed to protect. Here’s hoping another court challenge will come along soon so that the Supreme Court’s shortsighted decision of 2003 may be corrected.

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs