A few weeks ago, my husband, a security consultant, met with a city about finding vulnerabilities in their network. When he met with the city’s library director, one of the questions he asked was, “You don’t filter your public computers, do you?” My husband texted me immediately after his meeting to say, “You should be proud of me. I told them to keep their public computers unfiltered.”
There is some irony to this. He is, after all, the same man who used to be responsible for blocking access to Web sites at his former company, but his stance on filtering makes complete sense. His company had an Internet policy for its employees, for one, and he kept constant vigilance to make sure nothing got past the filters that shouldn’t and that innocuous sites were still accessible. His stance is that filters should not be used in a public setting, especially when constant modifications cannot be made, because it infringes on First Amendment rights.
I have an additional reason to add to his. The privacy of our customers, no matter their age, should be paramount. This especially applies to teens, many of whom do not feel comfortable asking an adult they don’t know about a sensitive issue. Filters are always flawed. They either block too much or not enough. Imagine, for example, a transgendered teen coming to your desk because they can’t access a site that will give them helpful resources, or a teenage girl who thinks she might be pregnant but can’t access any sites about abortion, or any teen with any issue that might be blocked by overfiltering. If the teens at your library feel comfortable enough and trust you enough to come to you for help finding information on the sticky subjects, that’s fantastic, but many teens at many libraries feel too uncomfortable to ask, so they don’t ask at all. We should never put our patrons in that position, and if removing filters from public access computers solves that problem, then I’m all for it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Yay, pornography in the library!” by any means. A lack of filters does pose challenges, but they are far outweighed by the benefits, in my opinion, because not only are filters inherently flawed, but some are intentionally so due to the bias of their creators. If you want more information about filtering, check out ALA’s very comprehensive page on the subject, http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/ifissues/filtersfiltering.cfm. Does your library use filtering on its public Internet computers? Respond in the comments!