Libraries and the Internet Toolkit

Internet Use Policies

ALA strongly encourages every library to adopt, implement and publicize a written Internet use policy in the same way it adopts other library use and access policies. This policy should be in keeping with your library's mission statement, other access policies and community needs.
In light of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) decision, ALA urges any library using mandatory filtering software to consult with legal counsel to re-evaluate its Internet use policy and assess the risk of future litigation. Traditionally, the children's and young adult sections of the library contain materials selected for these groups, although children are not restricted to those areas. The same holds true for the Internet.
The following sections have been organized to help your library create and develop an effective Internet use policy. Some of the tips and recommendations are intended for a specific type of library, and others are for general use.
The position of the ALA is set forth in several documents adopted by the Council, its governing body. The Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights titled “Access to Digital Information, Services, and Networks” calls for free and unfettered access to the Internet for any library user, regardless of age. The “Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries” and the “Statement on Library Use of Filtering Software” reiterate the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union that the Internet is a forum of free expression deserving full constitutional protection. The resolution and statement condemn as a violation of the Library Bill of Rights any use by libraries of filtering software that blocks access to constitutionally protected speech.  

In 2015, the ALA Council adopted Internet Filtering: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights which provides a comprehensive summary of the association's position on internet filtering.

All libraries should include a disclaimer and introduction that are specific to their own Internet use policies:
  • Disclaimer—It is very important for users to know that the library is not responsible for Internet content.  
  • Introduction—Provide reasons for the policy and explain what the policy covers. 
All Internet resources accessible through libraries should be provided equally to all library users. When creating an Internet use policy, be sure to keep in mind that the policy must be compatible with the mission of the library by including some examples of acceptable uses.
Here are a few suggestions to consider when creating or updating your policy:
  • Ensure that the policy speaks to access for all.
  • Affirm the importance of respect for the privacy and sensibilities of other users.
  • Keep it simple and avoid jargon. Making the policy too technical will confuse people.
  • Separate policies from procedures. Policies do not change frequently; procedures change.
  • Involve your library staff, board and friends group in the policy-writing process.
  • Make policies readily available and visible to the public.
  • Pay attention to the legal protection provided by copyright and by licenses for programs and data.
  • Include a statement addressing patron privacy.
  • Communicate clearly that users are responsible for what they access online; parents are responsible for their children's Internet use.
  • Update your policy regularly. Be sure it reflects the Supreme Court CIPA decision.
  • Include consideration for the integrity of computing systems.
  • Indicate that individuals are responsible for using the library's computers and the Internet in a courteous and ethical manner.
  • Advise users to log in/authenticate into the Library's network or to any other computer system following proper Internet use guidelines.
  • Advise users to be conscious of copyright, software license agreements and Internet use laws.
  • Advise users to follow federal, state or local laws on the use of Internet.
  • Advise users to use the library's software and hardware appropriately.
Public libraries should consider adopting a comprehensive and well-written Internet use policy that:
  • Sets forth reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions; 
  • Expressly prohibits any use of library equipment to access material that is obscene or child pornography; and in the case of minors, “harmful to minors” materials, consistent with any applicable state or local law (for additional information, see “Legal Section” of the toolkit);
  • Provides for the privacy of users with respect to public terminals;
  • Protects the confidentiality of records, electronic or otherwise, that identify individual users and link them to search strategies, sites accessed, or other specific data about the information they retrieved or sought to retrieve; and
  • Informs users if filters are being used.
If any Internet filtering technology is used, the policy should clearly state that, in keeping with the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision, adults have the right to request filters be disabled, without justification, and in a timely manner. The policy should include clear instructions for making such requests.ibraries should also consider taking the following actions:
  • Communicate the relevant policies for use of Internet-access computers to all library users, and include the parents of children who may use the library without direct parental supervision.
  • Post notices at all Internet-access computers informing users that “utilizing library equipment to access illegal materials as specified in the Internet use policy is prohibited.” 
  • Offer a variety of programs (at convenient times) to educate library users, including parents and children, on the use of the Internet, and publicize these programs widely.
  • Create a list of recommended Internet sites for library users in general. In the case of youth and children, according to age group, offer direct links to sites with educational and other types of material best suited to their typical needs and interests. For additional information, see “Children 10 Years of Age and Under” and “Teens 11-17 Years of Age” sections under “Safety & Responsibility” in this toolkit.
Unlike public and school libraries, academic libraries are guided not only by the intellectual freedom principles of ALA but also by the academic freedom standards adopted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
According to the Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries:  An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” (2003):
“A strong intellectual freedom perspective is critical to the development of academic library collections and services that dispassionately meet the education and research needs of a college or university community.” 
Academic libraries are unique in providing students, faculty and staff with information that supports the research and teaching missions of their institutions. As a result, the Internet access in academic libraries should be free and unfiltered. This practice allows students, faculty and staff to engage in intellectual and scholarly activities by freely researching any topics, including controversial topics, whether on or off campus.
The following principles should be reflected in Internet use policy documents for academic libraries:
  • The privacy of library users is and must be inviolable. Policies should be in place that maintain confidentiality of library borrowing records and of other information relating to personal use of library information and services.
  • Licensing agreements should be consistent with the Library Bill of Rights, and should maximize access.
  • Open and unfiltered access to the Internet should be conveniently available to the academic community. Content-filtering devices and content-based restrictions are a contradiction of the academic library mission to further research and learning through exposure to the broadest possible range of ideas and information. Such restrictions are a fundamental violation of intellectual freedom in academic libraries.
  • Policies and procedures should be in place that mandate harassment-free and safe learning environments for all users.
  • Illegal Internet activity such as viewing child pornography should not be allowed.
Academic libraries usually do not have the same censorship problems as public and school libraries. Most users of academic libraries are students (over 18 years old) and faculty. As a result, users in academic libraries can freely access Internet resources. It is important that parents are aware that their children can be exposed to information that may not be age-appropriate when their children use academic libraries. Parents need to be mindful that, as in any other public space, children need to have parental supervision.  
Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries (from Round Table on Technology and Change in Academic Libraries, convened by ACRL, Chicago, November 2006)
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "Twenty-one states have Internet filtering laws that apply to public schools or libraries. The majority of these states simply require school boards or public libraries to adopt Internet use policies to prevent minors from gaining access to sexually explicit, obscene or harmful materials.”
However, anything that restricts access to information based on viewpoint or content discrimination violates the First Amendment. Therefore, blocking software not only limits access to "objectionable" content, but it also prevents access to works protected by the First Amendment and important for enhancing a curriculum that includes art, music, health information, and the learning of multiple perspectives.
Schools are required to establish guidelines for appropriate technology use. Generally these guidelines are called acceptable use policies (AUP). By definition, an AUP is a written agreement signed by students, their parents/caregivers, and their teachers. It outlines the terms and conditions for using technology-based devices maintained by schools and personal technology-based devices used during school hours on school property.
An AUP should be designed to:
  • Educate parents about their children's use of the Internet;
  • Educate students about:

              -Risks peculiar to computer communication;

              -Rules for efficient, ethical, legal computer/network use;

              -Safe and appropriate computer social behavior;

              -Use of available and unavailable services;

  • Preserve digital materials created by students and teachers;
  • Protect vulnerable children from inappropriate approaches;
  • Discourage children from making inappropriate personal disclosures;
  • Encourage ethical behavior, and discourage criminal behavior;
  • Encourage accepted Netiquette from the very start;
  • Encourage polite and civil communication;
  • Encourage individual integrity and honesty;
  • Encourage respect for others and their private property;
  • Allow enforcement of necessary rules of behavior;
  • Protect the school networking equipment and software from danger;
  • Help improve network efficiency by influencing resource usage;
  • Share responsibility for the risks of using the Internet;
  • Reduce the risk of lawsuits against teachers, schools, and providers;
  • Simplify life for computer systems administrators;
  • Discourage copyright infringement, software piracy, and plagiarism;
  • Discourage network game playing and/or anonymous messages;
  • Discourage use of computers and networks for profit or politics; and
  • Inform Internet users that their online activities are monitored or inform Internet users that their e-mail privacy is (or is not) being respected.
ESC Region 2 (Texas)