It’s time to bring an open Internet to libraries instead of relying on flawed technology and bad policy

Libraries have been a part of my life since I was a kid. I grew up attending their programs and utilizing their resources, started volunteering in middle school, and have worked in college and public libraries in school and after graduation.

When I finished college in the middle of the recession, I turned to libraries when I needed to learn new skills that would make me more employable than the Bachelor’s degree I had just received. Thanks to programs on their computers, as well as access to the Internet, I was able to find the tools necessary to impress employers, and even found my first out-of-college job at a library, which in turn led me to my current role as a writer for CareerBuilder.

My education and experience wouldn’t be what they are today without libraries, and I fiercely love and want to protect the information and resources they make available to the public. I truly believe the Internet and libraries are the greatest education equalizers our communities have, and any threat to that availability of information is a threat to the well-being of our citizens and the public.

As the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics clearly states, “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” However, that pledge is being violated by outdated, flawed legislation like the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was created in an attempt to protect children from “harmful” materials on the Internet like pornography. 

CIPA has good intentions, but is being carried out in the wrong way. And due to its vague efforts, students and patrons are being denied access to information that cannot objectively be called harmful. Besides the fact that filters can’t always carry out the intentions they’re implemented for, they often have more aggressive censorship reaches than the purpose CIPA was created for – sites about LGBTQ issues, art museums, Second Amendment advocacy, information on teen smoking and role-playing games have all been blocked before.

When the law was challenged as a threat to the First Amendment, the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling found CIPA constitutional, but even in their decision, they address the problems we face today:

“The decisions by most libraries to exclude pornography from their print collections are not subjected to heightened scrutiny; it would make little sense to treat libraries’ judgments to block online pornography any differently. Moreover, because of the vast quantity of material on the Internet and the rapid pace at which it changes, libraries cannot possibly segregate, item by item, all the Internet material that is appropriate for inclusion from all that is not. While a library could limit its Internet collection to just those sites it found worthwhile, it could do so only at the cost of excluding an enormous amount of valuable information that it lacks the capacity to review. Given that tradeoff, it is entirely reasonable for public libraries to reject that approach and instead exclude certain categories of content, without making individualized judgments that everything made available has requisite and appropriate quality. Concerns over filtering software’s tendency to erroneously ‘overblock’ access to constitutionally protected speech that falls outside the categories software users intend to block are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled.” (Emphasis my own.)

However, that’s not the case. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, “While adult patrons can request for library filters to be turned off, all too often patrons have no idea that their library’s Internet is censored. And to make matters worse, sometimes librarians are unaware of how to turn filters off. Many librarians do not have access to lists of what’s being filtered or the reasoning behind it.”

Instead of pushing libraries to purchase expensive filtering technologies that fail to decipher beneficial materials from what some consider harmful, patrons can benefit more greatly from the employment of privacy screens on computers, which prevent neighboring computer users or passing-by patrons to view the user’s screen.

And for younger users who may not have the maturity to view more explicit content, it is imperative that we educate how to safely navigate the Internet, what red flags to watch for and why the information and materials are available for. An informed audience is more powerful than a protected audience. It’s time to bring an open Internet to libraries and change our flawed legistlation.