Libraries are places of open learning where the Internet can be freely accessed. Acceptable internet usage policies for libraries are usually developed, but many libraries do not go as far as restricting access to certain types of Internet content. That means acceptable Internet usage policies for libraries can be easily abused. Library computers can be used for highly illegal activities and there is little to prevent minors from coming to harm.

The Importance of Free and Open Internet Access in Libraries

The provision of open access to the Internet in libraries is understandable. Libraries are places of learning where the public can gain access to information of all types. Even if information is highly controversial and causes offense to some individuals, that does not mean access to the information should be blocked.

When Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species it was hugely controversial, but it would be difficult to argue the book has no place in a library.  In order for people to understand and debate Darwin’s views, they need access to his book.

Access to the Internet is now provided in most libraries. For many individuals, libraries are the only places where the Internet can be accessed freely. Children especially may be unable to access the Internet at home and view important educational information without fear of reprisals – viewing information on LGBTI issues for example or information on sex education.

Many libraries, as places of open learning, are reluctant to place any restrictions on Internet access, instead acceptable internet usage policies for libraries are used to lay down the rules on the content that is permitted and prohibited.

Typical Acceptable Internet Usage Policies for Libraries

When acceptable internet usage policies for libraries are used, they usually state that while access to website content is not blocked, library computers should not be used to access illegal web content – content such as child pornography, which is illegal in all forms.

Acceptable Internet usage policies for libraries often reference the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires schools and libraries to implement controls to prevent the accessing of imagery that could be harmful to minors – pornography, child abuse, child pornography, and other potentially harmful imagery. However, schools and libraries are only required to comply with CIPA if they receive certain state or government funding. Many libraries would be reluctant to block adult pornography, because it is not illegal and would not do so if they are not required to do so by CIPA.

While acceptable internet usage policies for libraries are important for laying down the rules, not all library patrons read those policies or adhere to them.  The policies will do nothing to prevent illegal content from being accessed and minors will not be prevented from accessing potentially harmful images.

Where Acceptable Internet Usage Policies for Libraries Fail

There have been numerous complaints made by members of the public in recent years of cases of patrons using library computers to access pornography, in full view of other library patrons. The past few days have seen another example covered by the media of where the use of acceptable internet usage policies for libraries has failed.

The latest compliant was made about College Terrace Library in Palo Alto, CA. The library has an acceptable Internet usage policy but does not filter the Internet in any way.  The policy states “Libraries and librarians should not deny or limit access to electronic information because of its allegedly controversial content or because of the librarian’s personal beliefs or fear of confrontation.”

The complaint in question, which has led to a police investigation, concerns the actions of one of the library’s patrons, who was seen accessing images of child pornography on a library computer in full view of other patrons. That individual’s actions were illegal and contravened library AUPs, yet it was still possible for that information to be accessed.

Free and Open Internet Access in Libraries, With Certain Restrictions?

The incident shows how the decision not to impose any restrictions on Internet access has potential to cause harm to library patrons, many of whom will be minors. Acceptable internet usage policies for libraries can be ineffective; however, the use of Internet filtering software can solve this problem.

The purpose of Internet filtering software in libraries is not to limit free speech, or even police Internet as such. The aim is to protect minors and to prevent extremely harmful illegal content from being accessed by some individuals to protect all library patrons.

The American Library Association (ALA) is against filtering of Internet content in libraries. The ALA even filed a lawsuit claiming CIPA was unconstitutional and violated the first amendment rights of consumers. The ALA argued that the Internet was a public forum, and as such required strict scrutiny, but that Internet filtering technology would result in overblocking of website content. A lower court agreed, but the case was taken to the Supreme Court which ruled that public-forum principles were not applicable as the Internet is not a traditional public forum. The Court also ruled that even if there was overblocking of website content, librarians could easily disable the filtering for certain individuals or unblock sites that had been caught by the filters and that this would result in only a minimum burden on librarians. The Supreme Court also ruled that CIPA was constitutional.

While the use of Internet filters used to result in overblocking of content, today that is less of an issue. Categorization of websites is now far better and more reliable. Internet filtering software has improved considerably in the past 15 years.

Why a Content Filter for Libraries Should be Implemented

Libraries are places of learning and should provide open access to the Internet, but they are not places where it should be possible to view child pornography. Libraries have a responsibility to protect patrons from viewing such material, and other harmful website content such as phishing websites.

They should also be using content filters to prevent the downloading of malware and ransomware. In January this year, libraries in St. Louis had their computers taken out of action as the result of a ransomware download. That attack not only prevented Internet access for days, but it took out the system used to log borrowed and returned books. Patrons of 16 libraries in Missouri were prevented from borrowing books. The library had to wipe its system and rebuild it from scratch, a process that took weeks.

Provided content filtering software is used wisely, and mechanisms are introduced to allow the content filter to be lifted on sites that are not illegal or do not contravene acceptable internet usage policies for libraries, they should be applied to ensure that illegal website content cannot be accessed, systems are protected, and patrons are prevented from coming to harm.

Internet content filters can be used to block sites known to host illegal content such as images of child abuse and child pornography, and sites that have been shown to be used for phishing or to deliver malware. Blacklists for these sites are maintained by several organizations.

Internet content filtering ensures the public are prevented from engaging in illegal activity and are protected from phishing attacks. Those controls to not contravene Americans’ first amendment rights.

If you are a librarian and are interested in blocking illegal content but keeping Internet access open, or if you wish to apply for grants, funding, or discounts and must comply with CIPA, contact TitanHQ today to find out more about your Internet content filtering options.