Beyond Rhetoric: Internet Filtering in Virginia Public Libraries
by Timothy L. Coggins and James W. Sanderson
During its past two sessions, the Virginia General Assembly considered legislation that would have compelled public libraries receiving any form of state aid to filter Internet access to computers located in the libraries. The 2005 session's bill, HB 2797, would have amended § 42.1-36.1 of the Code of Virginia by adding the following language in part A: "For libraries that receive state funding for any purpose, the policy shall also contain provisions on selecting and installing on those computers that have Internet access a technology protection measure to filter or block Internet access through such computers to child pornography as set out in § 18.2-374.1:1, obscenity as defined in § 18.2-372 and, with respect to minors, materials deemed harmful to juveniles as defined in § 18.2- 390." This bill would have added similar language to part B of the same section of the Code of Virginia. There was no provision for exempting staff- or adult-only computers from this requirement in the bill. (HB 2797 was substantially similar to SB 483, which had been introduced in the January 2004 session and left in Finance in December 2004.) HR 2797 was supported strongly by many House and Senate members and many organizations, such as the Virginia Focus on the Family. HB 2797 passed overwhelmingly in the House (76-Y; 17-N), but the Senate "rereferred" the bill to Finance on February 16, 2005, effectively killing the legislation for this session. It is certain, however, that this type of legislation will resurface in the next session of the General Assembly.
Cognizant of the free speech implications of the proposed legislation and aware that there are currently no available "technology protection measures" that can block only "harmful to juveniles" and "obscene" materials, the VLA's Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) developed a survey to assess the current Internet access practices in the Commonwealth's public libraries. The Committee was attempting to answer a question: Was there a problem that public libraries and their local boards and communities were failing to address, requiring the state to act? More specifically, the survey was designed to determine the use of Internet filters in Virginia public libraries, the types of filters and/or monitoring that public libraries use, the existence of Internet use policies in public libraries, and how libraries deal with complaints about filtering or not filtering.
Timothy L. Coggins, IFC member, spearheaded the committee's efforts by drafting the survey. After revisions, the survey was distributed electronically to the directors of public library systems through the Library of Virginia. More than one third of the state's public library system directors responded to the survey. The respondents reflected the diversity of size, staffing, and settings typical of Virginia's public libraries. (See charts A, B, and C.) The survey results answered the committee's overarching question clearly — public libraries and their local authorities have been concerned with and have been responsive to the challenges posed by Internet access. Many library directors highlighted the emphasis on local control. One director commented, "The use of filters should be a local decision. In some communities filtering might be a necessity, while in other areas it might never be needed." Another director agreed, "I do not think that libraries should be forced to filter in order to receive funding. Each community should make the decision to filter or not based on the need for filtering, efficacy of filters, and community demand."
All respondents indicated that their libraries have acceptable use policies governing Internet access. The policies meet state requirements and are filed as required with the Library of Virginia. Libraries make their policies available to library users in a variety of ways, ranging from displays on computer screens when users begin their sessions to posting the policy by the library's computers.
Filtering practices vary as library systems strive to respond to and meet the needs of local communities. Twenty-one of the public libraries represented in the survey use some type of filter on all computers accessible to children; only eight of the libraries do not have filters on computers accessible to children. Two libraries have filters on some computers accessible to children. One library reported that it will filter on request, and one library requires that a parent be present when a child is using the computer. Fourteen of the responses indicate that the library has filters on all computers accessible to adults, while approximately one third (eleven libraries) have filters on none of their computers accessible to adults. Six libraries have filters on some computers accessible to adults. (See chart D for the types of filters and/or parental controls used by the libraries.) Some library directors indicated that they do not use filtering software, but rather use other methods to monitor use and/or to hide what a user is viewing, including the use of screen guards (two libraries), positioning the computer screens/carrels so only the user can view the monitor (one library), and using staff to monitor use (two libraries).
When directors were asked to comment about the level of concern held by staff and the communities they serve on the issue of library computer filters, twenty-six library directors reported that their communities were "not concerned" or only "somewhat concerned" about filtering Internet access. Eight of the library directors reported that they have had five or fewer community complaints about access to computers with Internet availability in the past two years, while only one director reported more than five complaints during the past two years. Only one library director reported that the community served by the library is very concerned about filtering Internet access. As for staff, twenty-nine library directors reported that they and their staff are "not concerned" or only "somewhat concerned" about filtering Internet access. Three directors reported that they and their staff are "very concerned" about filtering Internet access. Two directors replied to the question with other comments. One indicated that there are widely varying opinions about filtering Internet access among the library staff. Another director indicated that there is concern about possible legal mandates.
In conclusion, the survey conducted by the Intellectual Freedom Committee indicates that Virginia's public libraries, their staff, and their boards have addressed the Internet filtering issue sufficiently and are appropriately meeting the needs and expectations of the communities that they serve. There has been no outcry from the citizens or from library users for state-imposed filtering. As they have always done, the public libraries in Virginia are balancing the need to protect both minors and free speech to the satisfaction of Virginia's citizens.
Appendix A: Comments from Public Library Directors
Comments from public library directors who completed the survey are listed below. The remarks are in no particular order and are presented anonymously.
"In practical application in our community, accessing pornography on the library's computers is a non-problem. I am concerned that adding filters will result in an additional load on our technology infrastructure, increase work processes for staff in responding to requests to turn off the filters for those who request that option, and that the funds spent on filters could be better used to purchase additional library materials."
"Our library system has fielded no complaints, either verbal or in writing, about this issue."
"Filtering is a waste of time and money."
"Philosophically, I could accept filtering that affects only pornographic images, but no such effective software exists to my knowledge."
"I personally do not advocate filtering an important source of information; however, as a public servant, I must not place my personal preferences above those of the community I serve."
"I do not feel that Internet filtering is necessary for adults, but I also am aware that the level of filtering currently in use in our library does not seem to have any negative impact for our patrons. We received few complaints before filtering and few complaints since filtering was put in place. I believe the decision put it in place here is the right one for this community."
"I was initially fearful of the use of filters due to the cap it would throw on certain legitimate subjects. However, after seeing screens of heavy porn left on the computer workstations on several different occasions, and when considering that in terms of our library system's need for federal support, the complete change in my support of filtering systems came easily."
"The few complaints we have had have been from mothers who homeschool. We suggest to them that they should be the ones to watch over what their children access on the Internet."
"My preference would be to offer adults the option for non-filtered or filtered access, starting from a non-filtered state. I suspect that my community would prefer to have children's computers filtered and I can accept that, although I do believe that parents should be the decision-makers."
"We deal with complaints as we would about any library policy. Ask the individual to talk with the director for an explanation of polices, and encourage him/her to put the complaint in writing and inform him/her when the Library Board meets. The Library Board is the policy-making body of the library."
"We've had very few complaints, and once we have explained the issue of filter unreliability, cost, and the importance of parental controls, patrons seemed satisfied."
"I came from a system that did not filter and was skeptical of filtering. But have discovered that it is really not a big deal. I do think that individual communities should decide what is best for them. Filtering should not be a state mandate."
"Personal opinion should not play a role in this issue. An important role of the public library in a democratic society is to protect the individual's right to open access to information. Internet filtering hinders an individual's ability to freely access needed information for work, home, and recreational purposes."
"Filters do not work in every situation — they are unreliable in blocking objectionable sites and legitimate sites. For our library they have caused more problems than they have resolved."
"Our decisions are based on our community's temperament. Our citizens expect filters on youth PCs, even though they do not understand how inaccurate they are. The youth filters do help staff monitor the older youth who are into chat rooms, etc. Staff have had few problems with inappropriate use of adult PCs, though they make it obvious they are keeping an eye on things. We purposely turn the monitors to the staff desks."
"All Virginia public libraries are required to have Internet Access policies which are approved by our governing bodies. By law, those are filed with the Library of Virginia."
"In some ways, I would welcome it because it would show that we are being cautious in this conservative climate. Perversely, I would also welcome the hassles it would cause patrons, even though that turns into hassles for staff. Using filters would prove that they are not all that they are cracked up to be."
"Two things: I think there are valid intellectual freedom concerns about filtering; I have protested about some sites that were blocked and was successful in getting those particular ones unblocked. On the other hand, I am relieved to not have to deal with some of the problems attendant in unfiltered computing in the library. In my previous position I served a library that was not filtered and we were next to a middle school. The time I spent on this issue was not insignificant. I think this is a 'local option' issue and not something the General Assembly needs to address."
"It's a community decision and should remain at the local level."
"I believe that pornography is not an acceptable information resource, and is not suitable for a public library."
"Our filtering software works extremely well and we have had virtually no serious complaints. It seems to be a good compromise for our community. We chose our filtering software because it has an easy-to-use, built-in function that allows us to turn off the filters when a patron asks or if it ever appeared to block constitutionally-protected information."
"I feel that the actions our system has taken are appropriate for the situation — children's areas have filters; other Internet access permissible for under fourteen if a parent/ guardian is present."
"We believe in responsible use of library resources, and this is why we developed Internet use policies and procedures that have been serving us well until July 2004. The use of mandatory filters since July 1 is annoying staff and patrons. We can suspend the filtering, so that's better than having no ability to remove the filters. Still, it's a time and money and public relations step backwards for us and for our patrons. People seem to understand, but we all wish we could afford to do without the $18,000 in annual e-rate funds so that we could go back to what we were doing before."
"I personally feel that the laws that Virginia has in place — code section 42.1-36.1 about the display of obscene material or of sexually explicit..., works very well for us."
"I think the option for unfiltered access is extremely important in any library — true universal access to all possible information is essential to the operation, the very definition of a library. Where the cost is not prohibitive, though, filtering many or most public access computers can be a fair compromise between access to information and responsible use of public funds."
"The reason we are currently filtered is to adhere to CIPA."
"I think it should be a choice for the patron, not the government. If affordable, it would be nice to have some computers filtered and others not — or give the choice to the patron when he/she logs on."
Timothy L. Coggins is Associate Dean for Library and Information Services and Professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of Law.
James W. Sanderson is Supervising Librarian, West Avenue Library, Newport News Public Library System and Chair of VLA's Intellectual Freedom Committee.