Posted by Lori Ayre on March 21, 2004

I'm delighted to report that Mary Minow is publishing an article on the whole issue of disabling filters and CIPA compliance. It will appear in First Monday very soon.

In Filtering and Filter Software, I couldn't adequately cover the myriad issues associated with disabling the filters for patrons because not enough legal analysis had yet been done on the issue -- the Supreme Court decision was a bit too new. Also, I'm not a lawyer so I needed to steer a bit clear of the issue.

I did advise people to select a filter that

  • could be easily turned off entirely
  • enabled staff to easily allow access to a single blocked page
  • enabled staff to easily allow certain blocked categories.

In addition to being easy, I recommended looking for filters that enable staff to set a override duration for each of the above so you wouldn't have to worry about turning the filter back on. Adults Self Select "Filter Disabled"But Mary (and presumably others) are coming to the consensus that libraries are relatively safe allowing adult patrons to turn off filters for themselves and leave the staff out of it!

Mary's First Monday article evaluates all the law that brings her to this conclusion so please get a copy right away and send it to your legal counsel. If you haven't set up your public access computers such that adults can choose for themselves whether they want to be filtered, please do so soon. Save yourself the headaches.

One caveat, depending on your library, you may need to validate adult users somehow before giving them the option to browse unfiltered. This is easy if your Internet terminals are tied to your circulation system since the age of the patron can be determined automatically when they swipe their card for access. If you don't have a handy tie-in to your circulation, you may have to set up a page that asks the user to state their birthdate (or something like that) and then gives them the option to browse unfiltered as appropriate for their age. Warn Instead of Block
This also opens up the possibility of allowing "warn" instead of "block" for adult patrons. Instead of automatically blocking content in a certain category, you can set your filter to "warn" the user about the category the content falls into and allow the end user to judge for themselves whether to go to a different page or view the current page anyway.

This approach is ideal because it relieves the library of the problem of blocking protected speech which they will do by selecting a category of content to block such as those that are typically available (pornography, sexually explicit, gambling, hate). While these categories may sound undesireable, they are all constitutionally protected so even blocking pornography can get you in trouble. Blocking "child pornography" and "obscene images" would be safe (Constitution-wise) but I haven't seen a filter yet that had those categories.

But with warn, patrons could browse as they normally would and if they bumped into something possibly unseemly, it would be their choice to skip it or view it -- and they could make that decision based on the information provided by the filter such as:

has been categorized as "pornography"
to access this page, press F5

To go back, press Enter

That's just an example of how it could work. But the great thing is that it leaves more responsibility in the hands of the patron. I'd rather they had more choice in how to interpret the filter's work than leaving all the responsibility in the hands of the librarian. Afterall, definitions of what is offensive and even what is obscene are ulimately a subjective decision so someone else can't really make that decision for you -- assuming you're 17 or older that is.