This summer, ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy and Office for Intellectual Freedom released a policy brief marking a decade of school and public libraries limiting patrons’ access to online information due to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
Titled Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later, the report advocates an action plan to reduce the nationwide, negative impacts of CIPA. I found it well worth a read, and you will too if you wish to understand the progressive possibilities surrounding CIPA at your library and at libraries across America.
Since 2003, those schools and public libraries that accept federal funding to purchase internet access have been required by CIPA to use filtering software on all of their internet-enabled computers. This filtering software must block access to images classified as “obscene,” “child pornography,” or “harmful to minors.” Any adult wishing to access material blocked under the auspices of “harmful to minors” is backed in his/her quest for content by the First Amendment and CIPA, which requires that the material be unblocked by the school or library. The first two categories (“obscene” and “child pornography” images) are not similarly protected under the First Amendment, so schools and libraries are not required to unblock those materials.
In theory, CIPA is fairly unobjectionable: none of us want to provide materials harmful to minors, child pornography, or obscenity. In practice, however, schools and libraries have applied CIPA in a draconian fashion: over-filtering for fear of patrons finding objectionable materials and for fear of losing federal funding. Going above and beyond CIPA’s filtering guidelines has resulted in egregious bans on social media, gaming, and emerging sites; nursing exams and other health information being blocked; embarrassment and confusion for patrons; and a negative public perception of technology at the library. ‘ Furthermore, as Fencing Out Knowledge’ states, over-filtering does a disservice to our 21st century learners, is contrary to ALA’s Bill of Rights,’ and disproportionately affects the economically disadvantaged.
Fortunately, the report includes four recommendations for ALA to take action on this CIPA-originating issue of over-filtering. The recommendations are:
- Increase awareness of the spectrum of filtering choices.
- Develop a toolkit for school leaders.
- Establish a digital repository of internet filtering studies.
- Conduct research to explore the educational use of social media platforms and assess the impact of filtering in schools.
While ALA tackles those items at a national level, in your own community you can advocate for young adults’ broad access to the internet by becoming familiar with CIPA’s requirements; educating yourself on the harms of over-filtering; and advocating for digital policies that best fit your school or library mission and your teenagers’ 21st century needs. Don’t wait for ALA to finish their action items! Start the new school year by coming to the table now. Read the report as soon as possible, and become a consistent, professional voice at your school or library’s Technology Committee.