April 20, 2005

"Reader's Block": Rhode Island ACLU Report On Library Censorware



This report was written by Amy Myrick, Program and Development Coordinator at the RI ACLU.

The result of censorware in action will be no surprise to readers:

X. CONCLUSION Some ten months after its commencement, Internet blocking in Rhode Island public libraries presents a mixed, but surprisingly troubling, picture. CLAN itself the group responsible for administering the blocking software has harbored mistaken notions that the filters could be "turned off" only on a site-by-site basis, lest compliance be compromised. Individual librarians show similar confusion. Pleading technical handicaps, many have failed to familiarize themselves with the blocking software and its deactivation options. Those that lack this knowledge are placing themselves at the mercy of a private company's technology that should never be permitted to take control.

Same story. Whatever the Supreme Court blithely assumed as an ideal in theory, regarding being able to disable censorware if needed, that's often not how it works out in practice.

All deactivation requires help from the librarian who either supplies or enters the password. In practice, this means that a library's official policy may or may not be followed when a patron makes a request. A recent visit to the Providence Library by the author of this report raised concerns in this regard. There, a librarian responded to a deactivation request for a blocked Google search on nudism with questions about subject matter, judgmental comments, and ultimately a refusal to disable the filter for viewing of what she wrongly characterized as "pornography."

Sigh. These days, I just skim through these sorts of reports out of vanity, to see who is cited, for example:

... [Websense] database's accuracy, however, has been subject to question since free-speech watchdog groups began monitoring it in the late 1990s. The most recent report, released in 2001 by Peacefire.org, found inexplicable blocks on, among others, an educational site about autism (blocked as "gambling"), the Jewish Federation of Northeastern Pennsylvania (blocked as "sex"), and a religious ministry site (blocked as "tasteless").

Noting analyses like the above, the federal court that struck down CIPA in 2002 based its decision partly on the blocking software's inability to distinguish between illegal and protected speech.

I don't know if I should point this out, but if you know the decision, that's a very odd phrasing. Maybe I'm reading too much into it.
[Update 4/21 - per a conversation with the report's author, it looks like I was reading too much into that phrasing]

This is also a good place to note the following: A few months ago, a small civil-liberties organization asked me if I'd be interested in writing one of these kind of briefing missives. With great sadness, I turned it down. They even offered to pay me something as a contractor (however, though we never got down to exact amount, it was clearly going to be nonprofit-organization writer rates, not high-powered lawyer fees). This was an example of the turning-points for me from quitting censorware investigation and poisonous attacks. I'm obviously not in it for the money. If all I'd done over the years was insufficient for me to reach a sufficient reputation-level, a policy paper wasn't going to do me much good. And it could likely even work out negatively personally, if it provided a PR opportunity to smear me and (yet again) I did not receive a defense. So every way I looked at it, I just couldn't justify doing it, on a personal level. The turning-points matter, there's real consequences.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on April 20, 2005 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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You'll be happy to know I name-dropped you on my Political Science: Global Networks exam when giving a definition of "Internet censorship", citing how you and others can't publish blocklists obtained through quasi-legal means for fear of legal reprimand. Hopefully it'll mean another reader for you and a few marks for me.

Posted by: Dave at April 28, 2005 06:03 PM

Thanks. All increases in readership gratefully accepted.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at April 28, 2005 07:56 PM