July 08, 2003

Melora Ranney Norman (librarian) on Open Censorware

[Updated 5/1/2005 - Replaced old version with rewritten new version, at author's request]

When CIPA passed and someone suggested that ALA should create its own blocking software, my initial reaction was concern. There seemed to be no real benefit inherent in the prospect of a library association spending valuable resources on something that is created specifically for the purpose of censoring resources. Since we'd all agreed that blocking software is inherently and necessarily flawed, I saw no purpose in our contributing another such product to the software market.

Since then, libraries and their users have consistently reported all of the difficulties we expected: underblocking and overblocking; filters creating demand for sexual content where none previously existed, since a fair number of people like to try to beat the software; libraries and users embarrassed or unable to have incorrectly blocked materials unblocked; adults not informed of their rights; librarians not trained or inclined to grant people their rights; too many categories unnecessarily turned on; libraries and users unable to see blacklists; and so forth.

Might open-source blocking software that we attempted to set to minimum CIPA standards cause fewer problems for people using libraries? I've come to think that some kind of SquidGard/Dansguardian version might indeed be the lesser of two evils, since people could at least see what's being blocked.

Would that ameliorate any of the basic problems inherent in the whole censorware scheme of things? Doesn't seem likely. Human nature remaining what it is, and computers still being whatever we tell them to be, as long as we begin by thinking of what we should be blocking instead of what we should be making available, the whole premise is bound to create limits on thought, speech, and access.

I read an article recently that told of a study of human nature that showed why fundamentalists and liberals are so basically at odds with one another. This piece asserted that fundamentalists value obedience and conformity: they view good parents (and, by association, good government) as strict. Liberals, on the other hand, value the development of independent thinkers: they view good parents as nurturing.

Will These are the rules you must abide by ever be consistent with You must learn to think for yourself? Can people who value controlling information ("strict parents") ever live in harmony with those who want to offer as much information as possible ("nurturing parents")? Or will the former remain convinced that the latter is without morals, while the latter is convinced that the former is unreasonably narrow and intolerant?

No software program will ever respond adequately to the needs of such opposing viewpoints. However, one software program can be made to block many of the ideas and information that one group finds offensive--and another, and another. Perhaps the real question is whether or not, in the end, anything of interest or meaning will be left.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on July 08, 2003 08:39 AM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
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1. The filter doesn't need to be good at filtering; it just needs to meet Congress's definition.

2. I've already written such a piece of software, as has Peacefire.

3. Safari has a "Reset" feature which empties cache, cookies, searches, etc. which could be combined with a "Simple Finder" thing to do just this.

Posted by: Aaron Swartz at July 9, 2003 06:23 PM