(For a little background you can read the previous article I wrote on this subject here at K5.)
July 1, 2004 is the first day that filtering is mandated, due to CIPA. If your library accepts 'E-rate' funding (and many, if not most do), today must be the day that they turn the filters on. The filters must be on for everyone, regardless of the title of the legislation ("Children's" Internet Protection Act)
Here's the real story of the past few months, told from the perspective of a small library in Minnesota, although it can be applied to just about every library in America.
Northfield belongs to a library co-op, called SELCO. SELCO provides all of the IT and loan services for most of south-eastern Minnesota. You pay a yearly fee and SELCO handles a large chunk of these operations, which allows many smaller libraries to survive and even thrive. On the whole, it is a great service. Unfortunately, having SELCO handle these things also cedes them control over other things, like accepting E-rate funding.
Thus, the big question facing many libraries of accepting the federal funding with the filtering strings attached was taken out of our hands. SELCO accepted the funds and, by proxy, this means that we did too. We could not even debate the issue - it was chosen for us already.
Not that I didn't make an suggest to fund the internet connectivity ourselves. The problem stemming from that is that SELCO membership isn't cafeteria-style, it's all or nothing. While we could have branched out and purchased our own connections to the internet (and set up some IT people to administer it), we would still be on the hook to pay the SELCO IT bill, even if it wasn't used. The Northfield Public Library wasn't even close to having enough money to do this. (Unless, of course, we didn't want to purchase any books in the foreseeable future - a phyrric victory if there ever was one.)
Amount of influence I had on that decision: Zero.
The next step that I could see would be to see if I could take part in the selection of the filter to be used. My hope was to try and steer SELCO into choosing something like SquidGuard. Unfortunately, SELCO is a 9-5 organization and all public (cough) meetings took place 65 miles away, typically from 10 a.m. to noon. Not only that, but the filtering companies saw the blood in the water and were moving in on every library in a feeding frenzy. They scheduled dazzling promos and 'demonstrations' for SELCO, to influence their buying decisions. FOSS doesn't have that sort of marketing engine and didn't wind up on the administration radar. SELCO chose SonicWall.
Amount of influence I had on that decision: Zero.
After that, the only decision remaining for the library was what 'categories' to enable inside the filter. SELCO recommended that the members should block these categories:
- Adult/Mature Content
I was also participating in a discussion list specific to Northfield, hosted by Northfield.org. I posted the SELCO recommendations to the list and it generated quite a bit of controversy, especially the ones for 17 and under. No one thought that 'Sex Ed' was a good candidate for filtering, since it may be a youth who needs this information most of all.
During the Library Board meeting in June, the board spent a good chunk of time debating the new rules and trying to form our own. The conclusions that we reached were these:
- We would not accept the SELCO recommendations for 17 and under. We would not implement those categories - only the recommended 'Adult' filters would be used.
- We drafted a 'Filter Challenge' document that lets patrons submit (anonymously, if they choose) a site to be permanently blocked or unblocked, regardless of filtering rules. This would try to counter the obvious shortfalls of the filter, both on sites missed and sites erroneously included. [My idea]
- We decided to post large signs explaining patron rights and responsibilities under the new rules, including the ability to have the filter turned off upon request. (This was one of the CIPA 'features' that caused the Supreme Court to let the law stand, unlike the similar CDA)
- A more restrictive set of filters could be enabled by a user or parent for a session, if they wanted.
Amount of influence I had on these decisions: Some, finally.
Along the way, we managed to include/fight/agree with the Mayor, the head of SELCO, the IT rep for SELCO, our state representative, the local newspaper, one of the large state newspapers (if registration required, use this PDF) and others. I feel it's safe to say that, between the costs of the filters and the time expended by ourselves and SELCO, a large chunk of the federal funding that we were trying to qualify for was wasted. A big thanks to the Big Chiefs in D.C. for that. (On the upside, I thought that I did a good job speaking out against filters in those two articles. *toot*)
What does the future hold? Well, SELCO managed to fall behind on the filter installation, so that we didn't get more than a week or so to preview the filters before they were to be turned on. Thus, we have no idea of the real impact on people's access. How much will be needlessly blocked? How much will slip through? No one knows. SELCO has admitted that they were able to foil the filters pretty easily and I know that any determined person could get around them in a matter of minutes. (How this reflects on the cost/performance of the money that was spent is left to the reader.)
Our representative was drawn into this because he was the author of a state bill that was far more reaching than the federal bill, putting us on the hook for 'naughty words' as well as 'naughty pictures'. To say that he has been less than forthcoming on the whole issue is an understatement. This MN bill would cost MN libraries a fortune to implement, especially if we had to scrap our existing systems to buy new ones that satisfy the new law. (The Northfield News reported called me to tell me that Cox's office (or Cox himself) had told her that the reason the MN law was proposed is that CIPA didn't cover schools. When informed that it did, they steadfastly insisted that the reporter was wrong. She wasn't. They are. And they're writing the laws)
So there you have it - a view of the last three or four months in the life of a library board member in Anytown, U.S.A. The fight over filtering is real, it is happening right now, and it could use your help.