Libraries and the Internet Toolkit
Sample Answers to Tough Questions
Why do librarians allow kids to have access to pornography?
- We don't. Librarians care deeply about children. Libraries already have policies and programs to ensure children have an enriching and safe online experience. And librarians are there to help guide them. In our library, we find kids use the Internet the same way they use the library. They work on homework assignments, read about sports, music and other interests, and communicate with their friends.
- Librarians guide children to quality materials, whether in books or on the Internet. We also provide classes to help teach children and parents about the Internet. In an information-rich society, librarians are information smart.
- The Internet is good for kids. The Internet is changing how we live, learn, work and interact with one another. If today's children are to succeed, they must learn information literacy skills for ever-changing technologies.
- Few libraries report having difficulties with people looking at pornography. The vast majority of children and adults continue to use the library and the Internet responsibly and appropriately.
My neighbor told me she saw a group of teenage boys looking at nude pictures, and she had to walk by them with her four-year-old. Why would my library allow this?
- I'm sorry if your neighbor was uncomfortable. Libraries have policies that deal with disruptive behavior the same way they have other library policies. If the boys were causing a disturbance, this should be reported to the librarian. The fact is the vast majority of children and adults use the Internet responsibly.
What can parents do to help protect their children?
- Education is the key. Parents don't need filters to protect their children online any more than they need a bodyguard to protect them in public. Filtering won't help kids understand there are certain people they shouldn't talk to on the Internet, and it won't teach them how to avoid negative sites.
- Parents should teach their children practical safety—that online or in public, the same rules apply: "Don't talk to strangers" and "Don't reveal information about yourself or your family just because you were asked for it." Most libraries offer Internet safety classes and tips online.
- This is a good opportunity for parents to discuss their family values with their children.
- We're concerned filters give parents a false sense of security that their children are protected when they aren't. Education is more effective than filters—kids need to make good decisions about what they read and view, no matter where they are.
What affect does the Internet have on children's privacy?
- The Internet provides children with increased opportunities to access information and resources. Children's safety depends on their being taught to be responsible for the protection of their own personal information. In libraries, librarians continue to assist children to find sound, credible materials, while helping them to understand the need to protect their privacy.
How do I know my child is safe at the library?
- Libraries are very safe, but they are open to everyone. Parents should accompany young children to the library and establish rules and expectations for older children. It's important to teach children how to make good decisions about what they read and view, no matter where they are.
My library uses privacy screens on its Internet terminals. Why has my library provided what amounts to private "peep show booths" for viewing Internet pornography?
- Your library has decided that privacy screens are the best way to ensure that its users have the privacy they need to research and study topics of interest to them, for instance, information on sensitive medical problems. Some users report being uncomfortable when they see other users viewing classical works of art or photographs of the Holocaust. Regardless, every library user has a right to privacy. While reading a book in the library, you don't expect a librarian or other user to be looking over your shoulder. When you are at an Internet terminal, you don't expect—or want—someone looking over your shoulder either. In the same way people have a right to access the information they want or need, they have a right to read or view that information in private.
What's wrong with filters anyway?
- Filters aren't effective. Filters were developed for home use, not for use in public institutions like libraries. Tests show filters block a lot of information many people find useful.
- Numerous studies, including those by the National Research Council, the U.S. Children's Online Protection Act Commission, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, have documented that filters fail to block many sites banned under CIPA as well as overblock hundreds of thousands of perfectly legal, useful sites. Expert witnesses representing both the plaintiffs and the government in the CIPA case corroborated these findings that are well documented in the Court findings. In addition to underblocking and overblocking, the Kaiser Family Foundation study also found that filters set above the lowest settings block another 50 percent of legal sites but only an additional 4 percent of sites banned by CIPA. Therefore, ALA urges libraries that choose to install filters to set their filters at the least restrictive level in order to minimize the blocking of Constitutionally protected speech. ALA also recommends that all libraries educate the general public on this issue, as well as library staff.
- We're concerned that filters give parents a false sense of security that their children are protected when they aren't. Education is more effective than filters.
Don't some libraries already use filters?
- Many libraries offer some kind of filtering technology as part of their local Internet use policy. According to a 2002 study referenced in the "Internet Use in Libraries: ALA Library Fact Sheet Number 26," 52.1 percent of libraries do not filter, 17.5 percent filter some computers, and 24.4 percent filter all their computers. Outlets in urban areas are most likely to have filters on all computers and outlets in rural areas are most likely to have no filters.
Isn't some protection better than none?
- Filters create a false sense of security without actually protecting anyone. Filtering technology won't help kids understand there are certain people they shouldn't talk to on the Internet, and it won't teach them how to avoid negative sites. Filters are neither the best nor the only way to ensure a safe and enriching Internet experience. Libraries use many approaches to help their users find the best resources online. One key element is education. Many libraries offer classes for adults and children. They also have rules and policies promoting an enriching and safe online experience for everyone.
If a perfect filter was created, would libraries object to using it?
- Of course not. The perfect filter would block only unconstitutional speech, such as obscenity and child pornography. It also would provide full access to all other information and ideas, so people can decide for themselves what they want to read and view.
Won't computers and the Internet put libraries out of business?
- Not at all. In fact, if we didn't already have libraries, we would have to invent them because libraries have something very important the Internet doesn't—librarians. The Internet is a wonderful resource and a great convenience, but it's far from perfect. Librarians have been collecting and organizing information for centuries. We can help you find the best source of information, whether it's online or in a book or pamphlet. Libraries also are places where people connect not just with books and computers, but with other people.
Why is the ALA forcing its policies on local libraries?
- The ALA's role is to recommend policies that promote the highest quality library and information services for the public. ALA respects the right of local libraries to adopt policies that uphold this ideal and meet the needs of their library users. Our association believes filters are not the best way to protect children.
Why should my tax dollars go to fund peep shows in the library?
- Your tax dollars and those of your neighbors support access to information. They buy picture books, encyclopedias, magazines, computers, and all the other materials available for you and your neighbors. They also provide access to the Internet—the most important new information technology of our time. The community funds library service to ensure everyone has access to the information they need.
Libraries don't carry Hustler, why do they allow Internet porn?
- Librarians bring people together with the information and ideas they want or need. To do this, library collections must contain the broad range of information on topics across the political and social spectra. People can then choose what they want to read or view or listen to. Since libraries provide information for all of the people in their community, librarians quickly learn that not all their users agree with all that information. Some users find materials in their local library collection to be untrue, offensive, harmful, or even dangerous. Nevertheless, if the material is legal, it can legitimately be in the library.
- In contrast, censors aim to separate people from certain information and ideas, more often than not to promote a particular point of view—their own.
- So, just as librarians do not monitor the books or periodicals people bring into or check out of the library, allowing people to decide for themselves what they wish to read and study, the Internet empowers users to choose for themselves the information they wish to view. Librarians can—and do—help guide searches, but they do not advocate limiting access to legal speech, because blocking access to constitutionally protected speech is unconstitutional.
Kids can't rent R-rated movies at the video store, or buy Playboy at the newsstand. Why won't you use the same common sense restrictions at my public library?
- Those types of rating systems are voluntary, and libraries make them available to assist parents and others in making decisions for their families and themselves. As librarians, we strongly encourage parents to take an active role in monitoring what their children see and view, but as public employees, it's not appropriate for librarians to make those decisions for them.
What are some examples of Web sites that have been filtered?
- Research conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Online Policy Group (OPG) on blocking or filtering in schools shows that schools that implement Internet blocking software with the least restrictive settings will block between a half percent and five percent of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics. Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the most restrictive settings will block up to 70 percent of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics. See Internet Filtering Software Wrongly Blocks Many Sites and the Internet Blocking in Public Schools.
- Other recorded examples of blocked sites include the Progressive Review, the FBI, eBay, NASA, Planned Parenthood, Beaver College (forced by overzealous filters to rename itself Arcadia University), Superbowls XXX-XXXIX, gay and lesbian sites, and political sites, to name a few. For lists of blocked sites, see Peacefire and " Sites Blocked by Internet Filtering Programs Edelman Expert Report for Multnomah County Public Library et al., vs. United States of America, et al."
What's wrong with having filters if all someone has to do is ask a librarian to "unblock" a site?
- As written, CIPA did not require filtered sites to be unblocked on request. In fact, the law allowed librarians to unblock sites only for "bona fide research and other legal purposes." However, the Supreme Court decision yielded important and tangible benefits to libraries and library users, in that the Justices ruled that CIPA is constitutional only if the mandated filters can be readily disabled upon the request of adult library users. Adult users do not have to explain why they are making the request. However, since adults do not know what is being blocked, it would be best to always ask for unblocked access. Indeed, ALA agrees with the Third Circuit's decision in the CIPA case. Even if the "disabling provisions permit public libraries to allow patrons to access speech that is constitutionally protected yet erroneously blocked by the software filters, the requirement that library patrons ask a state actor's permission to access disfavored content violates the First Amendment." Libraries cannot—and should not—violate the First Amendment.
This document was last updated December 9, 2003