The Internet Parent
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Monday, March 05, 2007

Public Libraries, Porn, and Naked Excuses

Even My Mom Would Not Approve


I was pointed to this Rochester Democrat and Chronicle column last week, "Filtering Internet porn not as simple as it sounds", by Mark Hare. It's a column that hits close to home (more on that later). Hare asserts that blaming librarians when public libraries leave kids vulnerable to porn is a mistake.

Do librarians care? Sure they do. But there is a certain combination of institutional lethargy, defensiveness, and lack of knowledge that is unacceptable, mind-boggling (especially for a library), and, sadly, rather commonplace. Just recently in El Paso, Texas, one parent was so outraged at what he saw another patron viewing at the city's public library -- with his kids nearby -- he took his concerns to KFOX-TV, which then reported on the story. The public library was allowing pornography to be viewed, with no filters and no privacy screens. The director of the library's response? Quote: "We do not monitor what people are looking at on the computer." The story resulted in a trivial improvement (privacy screens) and a very illuminating response (and quite illustrative of my point).

Libraries use very poor excuses for why they don’t filter. Let’s look at a few (and we can draw from the El Paso response for reference):

  • “It’s a matter of policy because filters are not completely effective.” -- WHAT?! Give me a break. That’s the moral equivalent of “We shouldn’t pass laws because there will always be those who break the law and get away with it.”

  • “Filters can block important information.” -- This is the juvenile, “I don’t wanna ‘cuz it’s too hard” response. I say, do your homework and find filters that work well. And demand better and better filters from your vendors. Send George Wolf (chairman of the Monroe County Library System) my way. Our products aren’t perfect, but we’re not afraid to be challenged to make them better. And if his filter can’t tell the difference between a chicken-breast recipe, a breast-cancer research site, and boobs.com (and admittedly, many can’t), he’s not doing his homework.

  • “Filters deliver a false sense of security.” -- So, instead, the library leaves me with NO security? My choice is to either restrict my kids from going to the library or to stand next to them while they’re there? What kind of public resource is THAT?

  • “Violation of First Amendment rights.” -- This excuse is the biggest red herring out there, in my opinion. Every library makes an editorial decision about what content they’re going to have. EVERY library. Why? Because they have limitations on budget. They have to decide what books, periodicals, and other media they are going to offer. They have to decide what tools and services they’re going to offer. It’s simple enough to say, “It is our decision that, given our budget constraints, our goals, and our community obligations, that it’s a higher priority for us to deliver Internet access for EVERYONE than it is for us to create two classes of service, manage the logistical, physical, and practical implications of offering and validating access to two classes of service, and dealing with the potential risks and liabilities (both community and institutional) of failing to do so perfectly." Just because Hustler publishes a magazine doesn’t mean your community library has an obligation to supply it to you.
From my vantage point, constitutionally protected first amendment rights have absolutely NOTHING to do with this issue. The library is not violating the rights of the citizens to view, nor of the publisher to post, such content. It’s just saying, “We don’t offer that here.” What would they say if they didn’t have a book title? “You can probably get that at the local bookstore (or on Amazon).” To argue otherwise is (in my opinion) specious, distracting, and disingenuous.

Librarians, above perhaps all adults, have an innately altruistic intention toward their young charges (one could say the same about the clergy, by the way...). But that doesn't stop them from being short-sighted, exhausted by institutional malaise, or ill-informed.

As I have written previously, it’s time we stopped treating the Internet as some sacred science project and started to treat it like the cultural and sociological tsunami that it is. That means that libraries (and all community institutions, for that matter) have to stop saying, “It’s too hard”, “We don’t know how”, and “It’s not my problem”, and start raising their game. The entire range of human behavior, from the most noble to the most depraved, is accessible on the Internet. Surely, as communities, institutions, and parents, we have a compelling interest in managing and modulating our kids’ exposure to this broad range, especially when the most depraved content is often presented in the most seductive, misleading ways -- exactly the kind of thing that turns kids into victims.

The road to establishing our children’s safety from Internet dangers is a challenge. It starts with commitment from everyone - the parents, community leaders and institutions, law enforcement, service providers, and technology vendors. At the end of the day, Internet safety is not a personal issue, censorship issue or technology issue...but a community issue. We all need to get on board, and leave our excuse-filled baggage behind.

Full disclosure: My mother, aunt, and cousin were/are career librarians. Most of my family is in the education field. So snapping at librarians and library personnel doesn't come easily for me. But when learning institutions stumble into sophistry aimed at self-preservation, at the expense of their fundamental mission and the well-being of their constituents, I get ornery, and am compelled to call them out.

What do you think libraries should do? And what's going on at your local library? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

7 Comments:

  • John,

    I applaud your endeavors to educate today's Internet Parent - a tough job to say the least. I also am so grateful for the development of the K9 Web Protection product!

    As the author of E-Parenting: Keeping up with your Tech Savvy Kids (due out June 12th from Random Hous) the most common question I'm asked by parents is how to find a good parental control software. I always recommend shopping around, however, have often recommended that parents start with K9 - it's free, easy to use and supported by amazing resources that can help educate parents while they are working to protect their family online.

    This month, I have featured the K9 product on my website at www.pluggedinparent.com as Website of the Month to spread the word.

    Thanks again, John.
    Cheers,
    Sharon Cindrich

    By Anonymous Sharon Miller Cindrich, at March 08, 2007 10:29 AM  

  • Thanks, Sharon. Keeping up with Tech Savvy Kids is a great title...we have to make that effort if we're going to stay relevant and credible in our guidance.

    Thanks for the kind words about K9. We continue to try to make it a better product for families.

    I'll pop over to www.pluggedinparent.com and see what you're up to!

    Keep in touch -- stop by again with more news. And congratulations on your book!

    By Blogger John Carosella, at March 14, 2007 4:16 PM  

  • John,

    Your rant on the state of library internet access is insightful and definitely had an effect on my thinking.

    I will be checking out your K9 product for home users (for my own kids) and recommending it to other parents (whose computers I fix professionally) should it work well.

    Thanks,
    -felipe

    By Anonymous Felipe, at March 21, 2007 7:59 PM  

  • Thanks, Felipe.

    If you find K9 to be effective, let us know. And -- more importantly -- pass the word in your community.

    By Blogger John Carosella, at March 26, 2007 4:51 PM  

  • I have tried many other filters and so far the K9 filter is the best I have used. It is very effective and does not slow your computer down. The software is disabled by password so it is probably best to let someone other than yourself have password rights if you are the one most tempted by online porn. Go to http://www.k9webprotection.com to find out more about the K9 filter and download.

    By Anonymous Michael, at April 02, 2007 6:31 AM  

  • K-9 filter is by far the best out there. I am so impressed and grateful that it is free to families like myself.

    By Blogger Mark, at May 12, 2007 9:12 AM  

  • Thanks for your wonderful advice. Hurray I have a great friend like you.

    By Blogger Deepti, at June 14, 2007 6:54 PM  

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