The use of library Internet filters to protect minors from harmful web content is a hot topic that is causing much debate in the United States. Libraries promote free research and learning. Having Internet filters in libraries naturally places restrictions on the types of content that can be accessed, potentially hampering both.

Many parents argue that library Internet filters are required to protect their children from accessing harmful web content or accidentally seeing obscene content on other patron’s screens.

Pornography is one of the biggest worries. Many individuals visit libraries to use the computers to access hardcore adult material, even though it is a public place with children present.  Parents argue that such actions must be prevented. There can be free research, but within limits.

It is not only parents that are concerned about the lack of library Internet filters. In many states, legislation is being considered to make it mandatory for library Internet filters to be put in place to restrict access to pornography.

Many libraries are resisting calls to restrict access to the Internet with web filters. The Library Board in Watertown, South Dakota is a good example. As a center for free research, the library board opposed the use of web filters. If library Internet filters were applied, it could potentially have an adverse effect on research and would result in the blocking of legitimate website content.

However, the library board has been under pressure to start filtering the Internet, with citizens petitioning the library board to start restricting access to inappropriate content, with city officials and law enforcement also appealing to the library board to start filtering the Internet.

The library board has now accepted that a web filter should now be used to control the content that can be accessed through its computers. A web filtering solution will be applied to block patrons from accessing obscene and illegal material. The web filtering solution is expected to be applied in the next few weeks and will be used to restrict access to certain web content via its wired and WiFi networks.

The Library Board was not opposed to the blocking of pornography, but to the other content that may accidentally be also blocked by the filtering solutions. Prior to making the decision to use liberary Internet filters, the Watertown police department assured the library board that filtering solutions are now far more sophisticated than they once were and can allow libraries to very carefully control the content that can be accessed.

The need to do something was made clear following a report that particularly concerning material had been downloaded by one patron through the library’s WiFi network. The library board is also keen to prevent its Internet connections from being used for illegal purposes, such as copyright infringing file downloads.

Additional controls will be applied to make this more difficult, such as limiting download speeds and applying timers on Internet access, with stricter controls on the wireless WiFi network since it is not possible to verify the age of the individual accessing the Internet.

In order to prevent the overblocking of website content, controls will be applied carefully and a system will be set up to allow patrons to request the unblocking of website content that has been accidently blocked by the filtering solution.

Watertown Library board is just the latest in an increasing number of libraries that has discovered it is possible to protect patrons’ First Amendment rights while also ensuring minors are protected from harmful website content. With highly granular library Internet filters such as WebTitan, it is possible to do both.