Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Filtering in Virginia Libraries

Well as you may or may not know, back in March Virginia Governor Tim Kaine signed legislation requiring all public libraries to install filtering software on public computers with internet access. Currently slightly less than half of the counties in Virginia use filtering software in public libraries.

Yesterday we had a staff meeting about how Fairfax County will be conforming to the new law. Filtering will go into effect starting July 7. The software used will block websites featuring child pornography, child abuse, adware, spyware, gambling, malicious code, adult pornography, web-based proxies, anonymizers, phishing, and material deemed obscene or tasteless. We will have the ability to disable the filtering on a case-by-case basis if a patron requests it.

I have mixed feelings about it. Most of the items being filtered certainly make sense, especially the ones dealing with viruses, adware, etc. These could potentially harm the equipment and filtering these out helps keep the computers safe. Child pornography and internet gambling are both illegal, so those make sense as well. A public institution granting access to these is probably not the best idea.

It's the last category.....the material deemed obscene or tasteless....that bothers me. Supposedly sites people are accessing will be reviewed daily to make sure they conform to the standards, but it's a little unclear to me what the standards of being tasteless are. I'm hopeful the people making these decisions will err on the side of not flitering when something is borderline, but we will see. These last categories weren't included because they are illegal or harmful to equipment but because they offend people, particularly people with small children. While a library will fight to keep a book on Mapplethorpe on the shelves it becomes to difficult to fight it when it comes to internet access because it is so much more in your face.

I like the option of allowing us to turn off the filtering, but it makes it like having a separate room in the video store for porn. It takes a certain type of person to walk into that room and not care what others think and it will take a certain type of person to walk up to the reference desk and ask to have filtering turned off. It all creates an unfortunate barrier between patrons and certain types of information. I wish there were other options but for right now this seems to be the best compromise to keep both sides happy.

Back in 1998 the Virginia arm of the ACLU raised a stink when Loudon County, Va. started using filtering software. I'll be curious to see if they say anything now that the whole state is moving that direction.



Maktaaq said...

On the topic of censorship and libraries, a librarian friend recently informed me that some books that go missing are ones stolen by self-appointed book censors. Usually they have already protested some book (usually a Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time), then steal it when the books aren't pulled off the shelves.

Mind you, this is a librarian works in one of Vancouver's more religious nutjob suburbs.

Hebdomeros said...

I haven't run across folks like that yet myself, but I've heard stories. About a decade ago a very conservative church tried to get medical books removed from the libraries in Fairfax County, because they often have pictures of people in the nude (egads!). Some went missing during their protest.

On a completely different but related topic, I once spent an internship researching at the National Archives. When you go in, you can't come in with anything. They provide you with paper, pencils, everything. I asked why the security was so tight (this was pre-911) and they told me they had problems not with people trying to swipe things, but people trying to sneak stuff in. Mostly people trying to prove wacky conspiracy theories by planting "evidence" in historical records.