New ACLU Report Condemns Mandatory Blocking Software in Public Libraries

June 17, 1998
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW YORK -- In a 17-page white paper released today, the American Civil Liberties Union said that the mandatory use of Internet blocking software in libraries is inappropriate and unconstitutional.

The new report, Censorship in a Box: Why Blocking Software is Wrong for Public Libraries, continues a line of argument the ACLU first made in a well-received 1997 report and furthers its critique of industry plans to adopt blocking mechanisms and expand them to libraries and schools. The report comes as more and more librarians are being pressured to install the software on library terminals to prevent minors from accessing objectionable materials. 

But the ACLU said mandatory blocking is not the solution. "Blocking software is clumsy and ineffective," said Ann Beeson, an ACLU national staff attorney who co-wrote the report. "It censors valuable speech and gives parents and educators a false sense of security about what their children are encountering online." 

Beeson added that while the ACLU supports parents' right to using the software in the home, they warn that no product can effectively screen the vast content of the web, and many companies block sites for ideological reasons that parents may not agree with. 

The report also criticized a plan to condition Internet funding for schools on the use of blocking software. The "Internet School Filtering Act," introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), is also supported by lead Democratic sponsors Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, home to Microsoft, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, home to Silicon Valley.p> In a letter sent with the report to the Senate, the ACLU is urging Senators not to support the bill when it comes up for a vote. "We believe that educators, not Congress, should be the ones making decisions about what students can learn on the Internet," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington National Office. 

Today's report follows up an August 1997 ACLU white paper, Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?, which offered guidelines for Internet Service Providers and other industry groups contemplating ratings schemes. 

Similarly, Censorship in a Box proposes five guidelines for libraries and schools looking for alternatives to clumsy and ineffective blocking software: 

 

  • Acceptable Use Policies. Provide carefully worded instructions for parents, teachers, students and libraries on use of the Internet. 

  • Time Limits. Establish content-neutral time limits on use of the Internet; request that Internet access in schools be limited to school-related work. 

  • "Driver's Ed" for Internet Users. Condition Internet access for minors on completion of a Internet seminar similar to a driver's education course. 

  • Recommended Reading. Publicize and provide link to websites recommended for children and teens. 

  • Privacy Screens. Install screens to protect users' privacy when viewing sensitive information and avoid unwanted viewing of websites by passers-by.

The report also includes a two-page "Q&A" on blocking software and examples of sites that have been blocked by various products. The ACLU emphasized that it did not seek to evaluate any particular product, but rather demonstrate how all blocking software censors speech based on subjective views about what is offensive. 

Recently, the American Family Association, a conservative religious group, learned this lesson when it found that CyberPatrol, a popular brand of blocking software, had placed AFA on its "Cybernot" list because of the group is considered "intolerant" of homosexuality. 

"Clearly, the answer to blocking based on ideological viewpoint is not more blocking , any more than the answer to unpopular speech is to prevent everyone from speaking, because then no viewpoint of any kind will be heard," the ACLU's Beeson said. 

The principal authors of Censorship in a Box are Ann Beeson, ACLU National Staff Attorney and Emily Whitfield, Deputy Media Relations Director of the National ACLU. 

Censorship in a Box can be found online at /Privacy/Privacy.cfm?ID=13624&c=252.

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