Thoughtful Advocates: An ALA TechSource Interview with ILA's Robert Doyle

By Michael Stephens | "If people were better informed about social networking sites and knew and used basic Internet safety tips, the cloud of fear may decline."—Robert Doyle, Executive Director of the Illinois Library Association

Last July, I wrote a post about some folks that were trying to scare libraries into dropping their Flickr presence and ban access because they likened Flickr to an amateur porn site. I urged library folk not to make any spur-of-the-moment, reactionary decisions and to put education first:
    What I sincerely hope will not happen is the libraries and associations that have started using Flickr will abandon the site because they are scared... come on! Don't let this type of e-mail campaign derail you. Look at the big picture of how this site and many others are used and can benefit your online presence. Let's teach our users about the good and bad of online communities, BUT LET'S NOT just close the door and lock it!
It is a good time to revisit that post now, because in Illinois, and in some other states, there's a movement at the state-government level to block access not only to Flickr but also to any and all that could be labeled "social network sites."
    IL Senate Bill 1682: Creates the Social Networking Web site Prohibition Act. Provides that each public library must prohibit access to social networking Web sites on all computers made available to the public in the library. Provides that each public school must prohibit access to social networking Web sites on all computers made available to students in the school. Provides for enforcement by the Attorney General or a citizen. Amends the State Mandates Act to require implementation without reimbursement. Effective January 1, 2008. (95TH GENERAL ASSEMBLY, State of Illinois, 2007 and 2008, SB1682)
This scares me. At first, I was dumbfounded that such a blanket banning would even be talked about let alone introduced... but I guess I should have learned that anything is possible in this age of Internet tubes and scrotum kerfuffle!

The bill was introduced by Illinois Senator Matt Murphy, who uses a fledgling blog—of all things—to communicate and foster conversation about the bill (as Jenny Levine recently pointed out). Murphy set about creating the legislation "for two reasons." First, he says he wants "to raise awareness of the threat predators on these sites pose to our kids" and second "to advance a dialogue on how we can minimize this threat." (Read the whole post here and ponder, of course, that his bill would BAN access to his own blog.)

My post at TTW was slash-dotted and a lot of comments appeared in both places, including a favorite of mine from Sharon Comstock:
    Reading the legislation, I find it puzzling that "administrative unit," "public library," "school," "school board," and even "computer" are needed to be defined. However, the most nebulous term: "social networking" website, is left to interpretation by those charged with oversight and enforcement. At what point would a website be defined as one that enables "social networking?" Online social networking tools support basic communications in formal and informal learning environments. What framework would the schools and public libraries use to make these distinctions? Leaving aside for the moment the issue of intellectual freedom, how would the schools and libraries realistically track access? What I find most interesting in the legislation is its author's fundamental lack of understanding: how situated and dynamic the definition of "online social networking" is. I am not alarmed by the introduction of this into the Illinois General Assembly because—as it is written—it is unrealistic to enforce. Sen. Murphy is likely trying to claim the legislation's introduction for political positioning; not to see it actually become law. However, what I do find alarming is his—and others'—limited view of the potentials CMCSs provide.
Good points, Sharon! And to play the scenario out, as I'm sure many of us have done, how silly does it seem that in the library setting we could no longer offer access to: Luckily, the Illinois Library Association (ILA) is well aware of such governmental initiatives and has already issued a press release opposing the bill: "ILA is currently forming a coalition against this legislation, which includes: American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, Freedom to Read Foundation, Media Coalition."

I reached out to those folks and got to chat a bit via e-mail with Robert Doyle from ILA. I appreciate the time he took with me on this important issue. His ideas are thought provoking.

MS: Senator Matt Murphy reports the bill to be the first in the nation. Will other states follow suit?

Read about legislative initiatives that impact social software and libraries in this article by Robert P. Doyle.RD: Yes, we have already seen bills filed in Georgia and North Carolina. Proposed laws in Georgia (S.B. 59) and North Carolina (S.132, specifically § 14‑318.5, "Requiring parental permission for minors to access social networking Web sites") go after the owners of social networking sites and would force them to prevent minors from creating or maintaining a Web page without parental permission. Companies would also be required—in those two states—to allow parents or guardians to have access to their children's pages at all times. The Georgia bill seems the most draconian, impacting all computers in the state.

MS: And didn't I just hear that DOPA is coming back?

RD: It should be noted that the U.S. Senate is again considering a law that jeopardizes E-rate funding for libraries that do not limit minors' use of social networking sites—a replay of the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) of 2006, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives by 410 to 15 in July 2006, but died in the U.S. Senate. Currently, there are two bills in the U.S. Congress—S. 49 and H.R. 1120.

MS: It amazes me that in Illinois, a state known in library circles as a hotbed of social technology innovation (such as the thriving blogs, podcasts, and RSS feeds from Kankakee Public Library), that such a bill is even considered. It could become a nightmare for librarians and really change the services offered. How does the Illinois bill compare to DOPA?

RD: This question is a little hard to answer, since the Illinois bill doesn't even define social networking sites. Just last Thursday, Illinois State Senator Matt Murphy, the bill's sponsor in the Illinois General Assembly, hosted an online chat at to discuss the issue. Of course, it is the height of ironic that he was using a social networking site to discuss the issue, since he wants those sites banned from public and school libraries.

MS: The irony indeed!

RD: In my opinion, comparing bills might be interesting, but it avoids the central issue. We have a huge educational effort here—to explain what social networking sites are, the value of them, and why are they important. For example, the skills required when using social networking sites are the skills that will be required for the future.

MS: I agree! The series we did here on 2.0 jobs is a good example of that. If it passed, what would happen?

RD: Well, we obviously hope it won't pass in Illinois. Even if defeated, we anticipate that similar legislation will again be reintroduced. Considering our experiences with eleven attempts to mandate Internet-filtering legislation in Illinois, legislators have exhibited little reluctance to abandon these efforts, since they continually reintroduce this type of legislation.

MS: What can Illinois librarians do?

RD: Again, the central issue for the library community is education. Librarians need to accelerate their efforts to provide Internet and information-literacy education and safety programs for kids, teens, parents, and caregivers.

Library advocates should contact their elected officials, both on the state and federal levels. We need to state first and foremost that libraries support the goal of protecting children from online predators. One of the primary concerns of the library community is the safety of children. We know the best way to protect children is to teach them to guard their privacy and make wise choices.

We also urge library advocates:
  • to participate in the discussions;
  • be respectful, but firm;
  • focus on education as the answer; and
  • develop your own talking points, i.e., use your language, your local examples, substitute the appropriate bill number for your discussions, but read and think about the following talking points:
      Talking Points
    1. Education, not laws blocking access, is the key to safe use of the Internet. Libraries and schools are places where kids learn essential information-literacy skills that go far beyond computer instruction and Web searching. Indeed, Senate Bill (SB) 1682 would block usage of these sites in the very environments where librarians and teachers can instruct students on how to use all kinds of applications safely and effectively and where kids can learn to report and avoid unsafe sites.
    2. Limiting access to social networking sites in schools and libraries will have little impact on the overall problem, since young people access these collaborative sites from many locations and over a period of time. If children are going to get into trouble online, chances are it won't be at school or at the library. They'll be home, they'll be at a friend's house, or they could even be using their mobile phones completely apart from adult supervision. Schools and libraries are relatively protected environments where adults are never far away and, for the most part, computers are in public locations that make it difficult for users to hide what they're doing.
    3. While seeking to protect children from predators, Senate Bill (SB) 1682 would impact a wide range of social networking sites used daily by millions of Americans. Senate Bill (SB) 1682 is much too broad. It proposes to block access to beneficial collaborative Web applications and resources.
    4. Senate Bill (SB) 1682 ignores the value of interactive Web applications. New Internet-based applications for collaboration, business, and learning are becoming increasingly important, and young people must be prepared to thrive in a work environment where meetings take place online and where online networks are essential communication tools.
    5. Local decision making—not state law—is the way to solve the problems addressed by Senate Bill (SB) 1682.
    6. Senate Bill (SB) 1682 would restrict access to technology in the communities that need public access most. Senate Bill (SB) 1682 denies the students and library users in schools and libraries in the poorest communities from accessing appropriate content and from learning how best to safely manage their own Internet access in consultation with librarians and teachers.
    7. School officials note they are faced with a new problem of monitoring students' and teachers' use of the Internet on personal laptops on school grounds.
    8. Libraries do need help to accelerate their efforts to provide Internet and information-literacy education and safety programs for kids, teens, parents, and caregivers. If people were more well informed about social-networking sites and knew and used basic Internet safety tips, the cloud of fear may decline and that success rate for sexual predators will be dramatically reduced. We need your help, Senator Matt Murphy, in funding an educational campaign now. Will you support us?
Finally, this isn't just as issue for librarians. I have continually used the term "library advocates " because we want kids, teens, and parents—not just employees of libraries—to contact their elected officials and tell them personal stories about how they have benefited from having free Internet access in their libraries and how social networking sites may have enhanced their lives. We want the public engaged in this issue supporting our principles: open access to information being essential for a participatory democracy.

MS: What can all librarians do, not just those in states that have bills introduced?

RD: The library community needs to be at the table. We need to be offering the Web-safety classes at all libraries and systems. We need to post the "Basic Rules of Online Safety for Teens" at our public-access terminals. In Illinois, we need to enact our Action Plan (See page 21 of the October 2006 ILA Reporter [pdf]). We need to support our colleagues when they are in trouble.

We need to be proactive. We are far behind on this issue considering the coverage in the media, proposed federal legislation, and proposed legislation in selected states. We need to connect the dots as reported in the local, state, and national media. To all the states that haven't seen this legislation yet, be prepared!

We need to act in a thoughtful and coordinated effort.

MS: Finally, I am concerned about my students. I worry about what type of world they might find themselves in if this legislation passes and everyone finds other places to connect to the social Web. What role should LIS educators be playing?

RD: My initial reaction to that question is, "Their roles are too numerous to mention quickly." So, here are a few—very quickly developed partial thoughts:
  • Help students to learn to think, to evaluate, and to judge discerningly.
  • Help students to learn to articulate their thoughts and marshal their arguments in an effective manner.
  • Help students learn how to engage in advocacy; encourage them to follow the leadership of LIS educators by joining and participating in state and national organizations that champion our values and principles.
  • Get out of the vocational business; prepare students not only for current library operations, but also for the future.
MS: AMEN! I like that a lot. We need to be thoughtful advocates. I will add that to my list of goals for LIS education and for librarians confronting the shifts in society, technology, and culture:
  • Learn to Learn
  • Adapt to Change
  • Scan the Horizon
  • Be a Thoughtful Advocate
Robert, thank you again for your time. Librarians and others reading this post, please follow the links, print out the Talking points, and look for ways to make a difference—education, understanding, and thought should trump banning, driving young people out of the library, and locking down the Internet.

For further information, including "Talking Points," please read "DOPA and the Participation Gap" (ILA, October 2006, Reporter, pp. 16–21; available via PDF at or ILA Update #2 (available at

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