Library Official Talks Consequences of ‘Over-Filtering’ the Web, in EdWeek Q-and-A

Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the deputy director for the office for intellectual freedom at the American Library Association, a nonprofit that promotes libraries and library education. The office develops educational materials and implements policies stated in the Library Bill of Rights, the association’s guide to free access.

A recent report released by the association,”Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later,” explores the effect of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was enacted by Congress in 2000 to increase Internet safety for children by requiring schools and libraries that receive E-rate money to block or filter access to obscene or harmful content. 

Guest blogger Danielle Wilson recently interviewed Caldwell-Stone about how the federal law is affecting K-12 students—particularly when it comes to the filtering and “over-filtering” of materials—and what can be done to provide equal access to services for students using school and public libraries.

Why did the American Library Association conduct this study and release this report?

This particular study was commissioned out of some frustration that we didn’t completely understand how filtering was affecting library users, both in schools and public libraries. There hasn’t been a lot of research in this area and we wanted to gather together what research had been done and talk to practitioners out in the field.

The report often refers to “over-filtering” resulting from the Children’s Internet Protection Act. How was over-filtering defined by the researchers for this project?

Over-filtering is filtering beyond the requirements of the actual statute…[T]he law only requires that visual images that are either obscene, or child pornography, or harmful to minors which [according to the law are] sexually explicit images that are legal for an adult to view but because of the subject matter have to be filtered by computers operated by schools or libraries. 

When you think about it, filters are filtering much more than [this] illegal content. They are filtering entire platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and YouTube, or they block access to certain view points.

We have documented situations where the filters are blocking access to alternative religions like wicca or pagaenism. There was a court case about the fact that a school was employing a filter that blocked access…[to] positive websites [discussing topics of importance to the gay community] like the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, [and sites that are supportive of] parents and friends of gays—while allowing access to sites that opposed gay marriage and opposed civil rights for homosexuals.

It is mentioned that CIPA has created two classes of students. Could you explain the findings that support this conclusion?

We find that there are a significant number of students [who] do not have access to broadband at home, and do not own a smartphone so they have no other access to broadband services or platforms on the Internet itself, except at school, or through public libraries. When the schools and libraries are filtered that means that their access is impaired. So you’ve got this class of information “have nots,” versus a class of students who are more than able to get around these barriers imposed by the over-filtering under CIPA.

What are the suggested alternatives for public schools and libraries in regard to this “over-filtering” of Internet content?

The biggest part of it these days we feel is education, increasing awareness about how filters work and how IT departments can adjust filters to be what we call “First-Amendment friendly.” [With] filters, the goal is to let in as much legal content as possible while only excluding illegal content.

That means understanding how the filter categorizes content, how to set those categories, and how to do it in such a way that they are not blocking materials that are necessary. [It also means] understanding that controversy is not a basis for blocking materials…… So education is part of it, but also working with….school administration and library administrators to increase awareness about the need for amending policies and procedures to enable better access under filtering.

Our frustration was that no one was researching filters, and [the] filtering policies [that] are adopted in school districts and what goes into that. We would like to see more research…that actually documents on a much more wide-scale basis what harms may or may not be a result of filtering, [and] encouraging schools and libraries to realize that it’s not the platform that’s the problem. [Schools should] allow students to use YouTube and Facebook as a means to develop school projects and engage with other students around the world…so that they become confident and competent digital citizens.

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