Free access or free money?

I’ve never been one to turn down free money, so when Chapel Hill Public Library directorNancy Oates Susan Brown proposed changing the library’s Internet policy to block access to certain sites in exchange for becoming eligible for spending federal grants on technology, the tradeoff seemed reasonable. But she took ill the day she was to present the idea to Town Council, and the item had to be postponed until January.

The delay has allowed time for more questions to surface and congeal into a moral dilemma.

The library recommends using software to block access to website content that is obscene, harmful to minors or illegal (such as child pornography sites, and I’m concerned about what kind of Google ads will appear on my computer now that I’ve searched to learn whether those sites are illegal). At present, the library offers uncensored access to the Internet throughout the building, and this renders the town ineligible to spend some $235,000 in federal funds it has received in the past year on buying technology that could connect to the Internet because the policy does not comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

Council last reviewed the library’s Internet policy in 2004 and opted for the unfiltered access it enjoys today.

But the flip side of that freedom means that kids who are closely supervised at home may be able to use the library computers to view content their parents would rather they not see. Librarians have to make those judgment calls and be the enforcers. The ick factor kicks in when librarians have to “intervene” with adult patrons who view inappropriate sites.

From that perspective, investing in blocking software makes sense. But what about the teenager who wants to find out about sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy or homosexuality and can’t do so on the family computer at home, nor the school computer? What about adults who may not have access to a home computer but want to learn about erectile dysfunction or breastfeeding? Would those sites be blocked?

And what about Chapel Hill’s reputation as a liberal bubble?

Providing library staff are healthy, the matter will come back to council at the first business meeting in January. Brown and her staff will be available to answer questions such as: How frequently do librarians have to “intervene” with a child or adult patron? Who decides what content should be blocked? Would a library staff member be able to tweak the software to block content the staff member finds objectionable based on political or religious beliefs?

The issue deserves careful thought. Is the price we have to pay for free money worth it?
— Nancy Oates

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  1. Plurimus

     /  December 12, 2016

    “I’m concerned about what kind of Google ads will appear on my computer now that I’ve searched to learn whether those sites are illegal).” You should have searched from the library computer using incognito mode on your browser or better yet a ToR browser. But clearing your cache and cookies will help.

    Honestly shouldn’t there be some concern that the Library does not comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)? More infor:'s_Internet_Protection_Act

    You are asking the right questions, but I seriously doubt relevant information about STDs, pregnancy, ED etc would be blocked, and frankly filtering out the noise may well help getting to the reliable information.


    Slippery slope:

    “Unfortunately, aggressive interpretations of CIPA have resulted in extensive and unnecessary censorship in our cherished public libraries, often because libraries, for fear of violating the law, go beyond the legal requirements of CIPA when implementing content filters.”

    2013 review of problems with CIPA:

    “Kids are under-prepared for the open web. One of the harmful side effects of CIPA is that many kids who rely on schools and libraries for Internet access are prevented from experiencing the unfiltered web. While in the short -term this supposedly protects children from accessing harmful content, it also robs kids of the chance to learn skills necessary to navigate the web as a whole.”

    ACLU factsheet:

  3. Terri

     /  December 12, 2016

    “Schools and libraries subject to CIPA may not receive the discounts offered by the E-rate program unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures. The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). Before adopting this Internet safety policy, schools and libraries must provide reasonable notice and hold at least one public hearing or meeting to address the proposal.”

    I doubt if anyone thinks children need access to pictures of pornography or violence. The important question is how blacklisting is set up and who makes the decisions. Will it be done through firewalls or through nanny-software? Will there be a panel that reviews the blacklist/filtering terms? The policies need to be laid out and review before anyone gets themselves in an uproar about this.

  4. Plurimus

     /  December 12, 2016

    I agree with Terri on this one Will.

    “because **libraries**, for fear of violating the law, **go beyond the legal requirements of CIPA** when implementing content filters. – emphasis mine.

    Sounds to me like the implementer needs educating.

    There is no “supposedly” about it. I agree many kids lack the skills and so do many adults but that is an education problem and not one the public library is tasked with. Do you throw your children in the deep end of the pool to see if they can swim? Do you let them hitchhike to school because you don’t want to filter their experience? If kids really want to get at something forbidden they most likely will find a way, I disagree that way should be enabled by the public library.

  5. Simple question: Will the browsing habits of patrons be tracked?

    A number of these systems will flag and track attempts to access material deemed “objectionable”.

    As far as the particular issue, given that the Library is potentially the only access folks have to the ‘net, I don’t support any kind of censoring of content, tracking of usage or other similar restrictions in general.

    If the Library could provide a physically separated “safe zone” of computers that are CIPA compliant, would that free up funds?

  6. “Do you throw your children in the deep end of the pool…?”

    People do that to their kids. They also usually hang right there to make sure they don’t drown.

    Given the ubiquity of access, state-sponsored censorship at the Library just doesn’t achieve the goals you set forth.

    Did you let your kids access the ‘net without supervision from day one? We didn’t.

    I think it is appropriate for the Library to offer guidance/classes on how to “safely” swim in the cesspool we call the Internet but, at the end of the day, it is on parents to teach their children these skills.

    We not only started talking about the dangers of the ‘net from day one, we looped all the kids in our lives into the same discussion.

    I didn’t support state-controlled censorship when it was originally proposed and I don’t now for exactly the same reasons, one of which is it is directly at odds with why we have a Library in the first place.

  7. Terri

     /  December 13, 2016

    Are you saying that the place you work doesn’t do any filtering Will? Do you support the movie ratings? How about speed limits?

    We put restrictions on each other in a million different ways every day. Just because you monitored your sons Internet use doesn’t mean that every parent has the ability to do so. Nor do the librarians. Again, filtering can be done to protect the kids from predators without going too far. The libraries don’t want to track your usage–they’ve lead the fight for privacy.

    But I do think there needs to be a citizens group that periodically reviews the filtering so that the librarians are supported and that no one can accuse them of unwarranted censorship.

  8. Plurimus

     /  December 13, 2016

    Will good for you. But I suspect you are in the minority. The pool example was more about needless frightening than the Machiavellian “sink or swim”

    “I didn’t support state-controlled censorship when it was originally proposed and I don’t now for exactly the same reasons, one of which is it is directly at odds with why we have a Library in the first place.” Generally I agree, however not everyone does. Put yourself in the place of the average person. Many do not have the expertise, savvy and experience you obviously have. Thus controls on publicly available and funded computers makes sense in a lowest common denominator way. I do not think it’s directly at odds with the library because the library does not carry publication with the same content CIPA is trying to control.

    I do not support tracking either, but the tracking most people need to be afraid of is the marketing folks and the cyber criminals not the government. For security reasons, people should be educated not to enter or access personal information on a public computer or even on a public Wi-Fi.

  9. Terri, Plurimus,

    It is because the Library computers and ‘net are the option of last resort for some folks that I support the most private and most open of access to it for them.

    “Protecting the children” is an excuse for many policies that become so immediately emotionally charged that they usually get little review, policies that, on retrospect, prove frequently to fail to achieve their aims.

    Applying CIPA at the Library fails immediately in several ways.

    Many kids today have devices like smart phones, tablets and laptops, that they can use to connect outside of the proposed filtered environment of the Library. Presumably the only kids who will be “protected” by state-mandated censorship are those who don’t have any other access – exactly those for which the Library is the last recourse.

    As far as those who do have devices, I know that the kids in my life were asking about and discussing circumventing these kind of controls at a very early age. So, again, the proposed “cure” only will lock out the technically naive.

    In a perverse way, the attempt to protect actually drives kids to seek the worst of the worst. I know a fair number of kids who treated trying to thwart the filters by looking for extreme content as a game.

    Implementing CIPA provides a false sense of security and shifts the focus away from what parents should be concerned with:

    1. Teaching kids how to handle the ‘net cesspool.

    Even with filters, there is a good chance they will stumble upon something that is emotionally challenging. They should be prepared.

    2. Teaching them that some of the biggest dangers on the ‘net aren’t apparent.

    Apparently “safe” websites offering “games” backed by advertisers/data merchants teach kids very poor operational security practices. They encourage bad habits which will burn them later in life. Parents remain oblivious because the site is filled with pink ponies, etc.

    Facebook, especially because of how it commercializes personal data, is one of, maybe the worst, sites for kids to use yet very few of my fellow parents teach their kids about its long term dangers.

    3. Teaching them that in our country the government doesn’t have the right to broadly censor material.

    Discussing this “slippery slope” is often lost in the rush to implement broad policies like CIPA.

    We have laws against publishing certain specific illegal material in any format for good reasons. These laws usually get reviewed and, often, narrowed in scope via judicial action.

    CIPA, on the other hand, reverses these established attempts to narrowly constrain speech by filtering very broad areas of discussion.

    With a few opaque tweaks behind the scenes, whole categories of information can be excluded. Look to China’s Great Firewall for how that plays out and reflect on what it means to a thriving democracy.

    Do we want to teach our kids that obliterating large swaths of content, even if the decision is made using algorithms implemented in a non-transparent fashion instead of a star chamber, in order to protect them from a vaguely defined potential harm is a “good thing”?

    4. Teaching them that parents have a direct role in setting limits on ‘net access and a duty to explain their concerns in a clear fashion.

    I’m still astonished at how many people let their kids have unfettered access to the ‘net at very young ages. We teach kids not to run out into the street, to dive into unknown waters, to drink and drive. Parents often act like the ‘net doesn’t deserve the same kind of cautions.

    Yes, it is a hassle to police kids when they’re young but…

    Finally, why is it we have public libraries? Why are our librarians usually at the forefront of protecting access?

    The most charitable assessment of CIPA is that it was born of good intent but flawed by a serious misunderstanding of our country’s Constitutional duty.

    Passing up the dollars, especially after the Council has doled out so many to incentivize development in just the last few months, is a hard course to chart but it is the thing to do if we really want our kids to learn the right lesson.

  10. Plurimus

     /  December 13, 2016

    “…..the most private and most open of access to it for them” And don’t leave out most dangerous.

    “Protecting the children” and I would add the library network along with the taxpayer investment, is a valid concern.

    “They should be prepared.” I agree, but that responsibility is on the schools and parents not the library. CIPA is a tool and like any tool it can be misused. I do not see the benefit to unfettered access at the library, but I agree with Terri the reviewers of the filtering need to implement the tool with sense and good judgement so that the librarians cannot be accused of unwarranted censorship.

    We agree on Facebook. It is the worst of the cesspools, and would pass the CIPA filters. So we agree on the false sense of security, and CIPA should not be an either or strategy.

    “the government doesn’t have the right to broadly censor material” except when the computer and access network is owned by the government or an employer. I think this too is a valuable lesson, along with prospective employers will read your Facebook page and search for your social media content, along with your credit history, grades and anything else that ends up on the network with your name on it.

    “Do we want to teach our kids that obliterating large swaths of content…..” Not a good or bad thing so much as the courts have routinely ruled that content access is the prerogative of the owner of the network and the computer.

    “Finally, why is it we have public libraries? Why are our librarians usually at the forefront of protecting access?” I argue libraries are not responsible for protecting access. We should not put them in that position, hence the CIPA tool that is configurable and requires appropriate public hearings before being adopted..

    “The most charitable assessment of CIPA is that it was born of good intent but flawed by a serious misunderstanding of our country’s Constitutional duty.” I think yours is a misread of the Constitution and the courts agree; the Supreme Court decided in 2003 to uphold the law against a constitutional challenge.

    CIPA says: Schools and libraries subject to CIPA must certify that the institution has adopted an internet safety policy that includes use of a “technology protection measure”—filtering or blocking software—to keep adults from accessing images online that are obscene or child pornography. The filtering software must also block minors’ access to images that are “harmful to minors,” that is, sexually explicit images that adults have a legal right to access but lacking any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors. Further; A person authorized by the institution may disable the filter or unblock a website for an adult user to enable access for bona fide research or for any other lawful purpose. An authorized person may also unblock, for users of all ages, appropriate sites that are wrongfully blocked by the filtering software.

    CIPA does not require schools or libraries to block online text, nor does it authorize blocking access to controversial or unorthodox ideas or political viewpoints. Guidance issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency charged with enforcing CIPA, states that online social media sites like Facebook do not fall into one of the categories of speech that must be blocked under CIPA, and that these sites should not be considered harmful to minors under the law.

    Regarding privacy, CIPA contains an express provision stating that the law does not authorize any tracking of the internet use of anyone in an identifiable manner. When the law calls for monitoring, it means supervision, not the adoption of software or other tools to track users’ web-surfing habits.

    There is no Constitutional issue here.

    The lesson I fear kids will take away is that if they are not permitted to view this content in the schools or at home, they can always go to the library where there are no filters. Its not a free speech issue, and the FoI act applies to government not the internet.

  11. Terri

     /  December 14, 2016


    You seem to be arguing for equity of access. I think you know how strongly I feel about that or I would not have invested so much time and energy to municipal broadband and digital literacy for everyone. But when it comes to pornography we will have to part ways. I don’t feel that our public libraries have an obligation to provide that access, nor a responsibility to police the public computers for its use.

    While there is other content that is equally offensive to me, such as white supremacy garbage, I would draw the line at filtering that content as repugnant as it is. Others will disagree which is why I support filtering by standards with loads of citizen involvement and sunshine.

  12. Plurimus, Terri,

    Access goes beyond providing an end-point to get on the ‘net.

    Plurimus, “we” are “the government” so the networks are ours, right?

    CIPA requires that mechanisms “block only ‘visual depictions’ that are legally obscene, are child pornography, or depict sexual activity in a way that is ‘patently offensive’ to display to minors.”

    Note, it doesn’t block violent or other emotionally destructive images.

    Drone footage, Saudi beheadings, mass catastrophes, etc. are not subject to filtering thus my concern that CIPA implementation lulls parents into thinking their kids are “safe” online at the Library.

    As a practical matter, every automated censorship mechanism suffers from “over-blocking” content. Images of self-checks for testicular and breast cancers are often cited as examples of the over-broad reach of these filtering services.

    While CIPA has several provisions to avoid the problems of this content “over-blocking”, narrowly drawing the content it excludes and providing adults unquestioned use of unblocked access, these provisions often aren’t implemented.

    For instance, is our Library prepared to turn-off filtering on request? Will terminals freed of filtering be segregated so kids can’t inadvertently glance at “inappropriate” images? How does the Library let parents know that CIPA filtering is no silver bullet and they shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security?

    I trust our librarians to make the day-to-day calls on improperly blocked material but want to know how underage patrons will flag those requests in a way that honors their privacy.

    Both of you have suggested oversight mechanisms to limit “false positives” but does the Library’s proposal pull in folks from the local community to help guide the policy?

    Presumably some of this material is so embarrassing, etc. a young patron felt the need to view it at the Library, how can the Library address their need for further information when they don’t want to discuss them with their own parents? And do our librarians want to be put in a position of judging a range of content that doesn’t fall under CIPA’s guidelines?

    Finally, I still think CIPA is a very poor way to protect our children online and promotes questionable policies including the state’s broad right to censor material.

    Given all the questions around its implementation, the “slippery slope”, what it means for parents and their responsibility in managing their children’s ‘net access, I hope Council decides to forgo participation.

  13. Plurimus

     /  December 14, 2016

    “….“we” are “the government” so the networks are ours, right?” Yes, and that means everyone.

    “… lulls parents into thinking their kids are “safe” online at the Library.” I guess, but your argument is none is better than some. I don’t get it.

    I hope the counsel has an informed discussion on the matter and hears from the public at large. I hope they make the best decision they can. If they do decide to implement CIPA and take the funds that at least some of the funds are dedicated to digital literacy.

  14. bart

     /  December 14, 2016

    FWIW, I think a decision on this should include a real look at the material being debated, not a theoretical understanding of what might be available.

    Whether CIPA is a good idea or not, to me, is not even the first principle. Some amorphous idea of protecting children isn’t either. I’d much rather that council take an honest look at various materials online and have a discussion after that. At least they couldn’t be accused of naivety, and any decision would be informed.

    What we do need is a discussion of whether we have any notions of restrictions on behavior or whether we choose to subsidize anything at all, no matter what or who is involved. Since some material is a product of criminal behavior, I would think viewing it would be wrong. Wouldn’t providing no-questions-asked access to such also be wrong?

    I think CIPA attempts to address this question although it has become framed in a “save the children” way that, to me, does not serve the discussion well. Having been through this type of decision making before, I can honestly say there is no easy answer. You end up either looking like a censoring nut or someone who tacitly agrees that all the crap out there represents acceptable behavior.

    I believe that everyone has a right to “adult-only” material. I don’t know that everyone has a right to demand it at public expense in an environment that is supposed to be for the “greater good.” I think town council could support either way it goes with this, but I want more than the usual “censorship / save the children” duality.

    Are there any expectations about how “greater good” public resources are to be used?