Censorship: Filters and Firewalls; Does Porn Have a Place in Libraries?

Estimated reading time of article: 4 mins

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By James Johnson

This news piece found its way across my desk last week. It describes a potentially disturbing event that can occur (with varying degrees of frequency) in our public libraries. That is to say, what is classified as obscene material under the Canadian Criminal Code of Canada (CCC), accessed through information commons inside the public sphere – porn in the library. Specifically section 163, subsection (2a).

In plain terms – a person is guilty of an offence if they wilfully expose obscene material to public view.

Like most every law in Canada, there is no black and white. It’s all grey. And it’s up to the courts to determine what the definitions are in practicum. But I’m not particularly interested in the determinants of legal proceedings or precedents in the future. I want to know how these policies affect information seekers now.

In the case of Kingston Frontenac Public Library, they have made it clear their policy will remain the same; that is, patrons can use the internet to access pornography on the library computers. There is a recommendation on their policy page to consider that other users sharing the same space with them may not share the same penchant for porn perusing, and this consideration should be exercised prior to viewing such materials. It should also be noted that KFPL is a proponent of Ontario Library Association’s “Statement on Intellectual Freedom” and therefore apply no internet content filters on their networks.

That can’t be entirely true though. All libraries apply firewall and filters to some degree. These assist in blocking malicious software and internal/external unauthorized data collection. And rightly so! All admins and their networks have a right to protected data.

But what about public libraries that have chosen the opposite position? This library has updated its policy to include terms like “refrain from displaying”, and “reasonably considered offensive”. Like a page out of our own Criminal Code! Could the defendant please define “reasonably offensive” and their interpretation of such a claim? Indeed it is another of those grey areas.

But why not add filters that could block obscene materials? If we have filters that are sophisticated enough to stem the flow of malware, surely we can devise one for porn! But what is obscene? Is a video of a nude woman squeezing her bare breasts obscene? Perhaps it is catalogued as an educational clip of home breast cancer inspection techniques for women? Is that obscene? Can an algorithm effectively determine human morality? And is porn considered freedom of speech and expression, where limiting access to such material could be a violation of a person’s rights and freedoms allotted to them through our sacred Charter?  These are the questions we need to be asking.

Cory Doctorow’s excellent piece in The Guardian provides the evidence that filters fail time and time again. He discusses a UK internet filter so terribly inefficient; one which blocks rape-crisis centre websites, and (ironically) sites that help people fight their porn addictions.

Thankfully the library that has added “offensive material” access as prohibitive in their policy has not undertaken any new filter applications. They’re on the side of “if someone complains, we’ll ask the black sheep to knock it off.” My concern is who gets to decide what’s offensive? It’s very grey. And I’m sure before long, after someone undoubtedly gets offended, the issue will resemble a NIMBY-esque sequence of dialogues. But discourse nonetheless.

This is such a difficult issue to write about, especially as a library student and father. Like many issues of great relevance, there will be many opinions. I’m convinced where my opinion lies. I subscribe to a specific western set of moralities that stem from Judeo-Christian values, for which my country was built upon. For better or worse. Certainly without my consent, but entirely to my benefit. A framework for which one can form their own moral base. That is the luxury of my personal freedom, paid for with personal responsibility. I will not have this luxury at work and must follow my employers own interpretation of these values. No small feat, but I’m happy to offset that responsibility with a thoughtful, strong policy from the organization.

In their report to Parliament, Casavant and Robertson state:

“The use of new technologies such as the Internet has created unique challenges and problems: computer pornography is an increasing concern, especially because dissemination of such material cannot generally be controlled. There are also issues regarding the potential liability of the owners or managers of computer networks, such as universities. Although criminal charges have been laid regarding the distribution or possession of pornography on the Internet, to date there has been little judicial guidance on the issues involved.”

The issues of intent and dissemination will remain as the figures of contention in the libraries v. patrons battle over pornography’s place in the library, though caution should be considered when choosing a side. Controlling and censoring information, especially controversial information, is a characteristic of despotism not democracy.

On a lighter note, Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.

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