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Editorial: Lebanon Libraries Face Issue of Computer Filters

  • Linda Armstrong, a substitute for the circulation desk at the Lebanon Public Library, walks home with books on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, outside of the library in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The people who run Lebanon’s public libraries have proven themselves happy warriors in the continually evolving battles over privacy and access to information. As such, they are carrying on the long and honorable history of work by America’s librarians to protect their patrons’ confidentiality and their freedom to read what they want — without being tracked or questioned or otherwise intimidated by law enforcement, government officials or anyone else.

In the 1930s, the American Library Association established a code of ethics protecting the privacy of library users. In the 1950s, during the era of McCarthyism, the ALA adopted its “Freedom To Read” policy in response to efforts by the federal government to track and regulate Americans’ reading habits. And librarians across the country opposed the expanded surveillance and investigative powers granted by the so-called Patriot Act, which was signed into law shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In Lebanon, the city’s libraries made international news in September 2015 when, bucking pressure from both local police and the federal Department of Homeland Security, the Kilton Public Library became the first such institution in the U.S. to host a server “relay” for the global network known as Tor, an anonymous web browsing service designed to mask the location and identity of internet users. Two months later, Lebanon library officials offered free flash drives containing an operating system called Tails, which users can plug into their own computers to access the Tor network and browse the internet without fear of being traced. Such anonymity is important to shoppers, for example, who don’t want to be tracked relentlessly by commercial interests, and it’s critical for whistleblowers and victims of domestic violence. It’s also vital to dissidents and foreign activists, which is why much of the funding for developing and operating the Tor network has come from the U.S. Department of State and the Pentagon.

Now, as staff writer Tim Camerato reported on Sunday, the city’s library officials are confronting a new challenge: whether to install filters on library computers to prevent users, specifically children, from accessing what is euphemistically called “inappropriate content” — meaning pornography. The issue came to light several weeks ago when Jim Vanier, the youth center coordinator for the Carter Community Building Association, told librarians that two youngsters may have accessed pornography on a public computer at the Lebanon Public Library. (The middle-school students later told Vanier that they hadn’t done anything wrong.)

Nobody wants children looking at porn, of course. But the reality is that they have done so for centuries, in whatever medium is popular — from the earliest forms of print to daguerreotypes to glossy skin mags to stag films, videotapes and DVDs. Today’s internet certainly has plenty of “inappropriate content” (though it’s not as porn-saturated as some alarmists may claim), and accessing it is even easier than fishing a copy of Playboy out from under your big brother’s mattress.

But installing filters on the public computers in Lebanon’s city libraries would be contrary to their mission and a betrayal of their recent efforts to ensure that library users can access the information they want and need.

Also, and not incidentally, filters don’t work.

One study, by the San Jose Public Library, found that filters have an overall accuracy rate of 60-70 percent for traditional text content, and an even lower success rate — about 40 percent — with multimedia content, such as images and video (which describes most of the bad stuff). About 20 percent of the time, the study found, legitimate content is blocked. And about 20 percent of the time, inappropriate content gets through.

Filters can improve over time, but the companies that develop and provide them are not inclined to show librarians or other outsiders how their filtering algorithms work. That means a library that installs filters has ceded control of the information available to its patrons to the filtering company. Some filters allow users to add sites to a “white list” (allowed) or a “black list” (blocked), and users can ask for certain blocked sites to be unblocked. But all that creates a huge administrative burden for the library — the San Jose study estimated each such request took 60 minutes of staff time. Worse, as Lebanon’s Library Director Sean Fleming told Camerato, some users might be reluctant to ask a librarian to override a filter. “People want privacy when they come into the library,” he said.

The city’s Library Board of Trustees will form a task force to review its internet use policy, which has not been updated since 2013. Part of that review likely will be the question of installing filters. It will be a challenge to counter the “kids are watching porn in the library” argument, but the best way to approach that is for parents to talk with their children about right and wrong, for teachers to help students think through complicated issues, and for librarians to guide users to trustworthy and appropriate sources of information. We hope library officials decide to err on the side of open access to information. If they do, they won’t be erring at all.