Filtering is for Coffee Makers, Not Libraries (Part II)

(I started to write a reply to a comment from my last post, but part of the reply turned into a full length post.)

Allow me to illustrate why I find internet filtering odious in public libraries.


Imagine you are at a restaurant. You pay on a yearly basis to eat there in exchange for having a wide variety of culinary options available to you. When you enter the restaurant, you are seated and given a menu. Upon opening the menu and flipping through the pages, you notice that some of the selections have been blackened out. You call the waiter over.

“Excuse me, but why are some of these selections blackened out?”

“Ah, those are entrees that have been judged to be unhealthy for you by the Health Board. They have possibly bad ingredients that are thought to be detrimental for a healthy lifestyle.”

“What do you mean, possibly full of bad ingredients?”

“Some of the dishes have been judged to be not good for a healthy lifestyle whatsoever. Other dishes might not be good for you so we are erring on the side of caution to exclude them. And then there are entrees that are good for you but since they share some of the same ingredients as the bad dishes, we have excluded them as well.”

“So, some of these entrees could be perfectly fine for me?”

“Yes sir. When we find a good dish that has been mistakenly marked as bad, we remove the blackening material.”

“That’s good! But what about the dishes that might not be good for me?”

“We’ve found that we get different reactions. Some people are outraged to find it on the regular menu, saying they cannot believe we would allow that to be served here. Others are outraged to find it on the complete menu, saying how dare we exclude it from the regular menu. It’s a tough call because it is a rather subjective assessment.”

“I see.”

“If you’d like, I can bring you a full menu without the retractions…”

“Yes, please, I’d like that.”

“…But there are some caveats.”

“Like what?”

“For me to bring out the complete menu, you have to assure me that you are someone who believes in a healthy lifestyle. Also, that it will be frowned upon by the other diners to consume the entrees that are loaded with bad ingredients. In addition, you will not share your meal with other people. Especially if you do end up ordering something that has been previously judged as unhealthy and especially if that person is a child. Can you agree to such terms?”

“I can understand and abide by that last part, but I don’t get the first two.”

“The Health Board wants to promote a healthy lifestyle for all the diners. While as an adult you are free to eat what you please, just know that eating so freely may not be held in the highest of esteems by the other diners. Even though it will be your food and being consumed by you, it may be upsetting to them.”

“Why should they care about what I eat?”

“Because they don’t eat it themselves and feel that no one else should either. Nor do they even want to catch sight of someone who could possibly be eating something they find repulsive.”

“So, why do I have to promise you that I lead a healthy lifestyle just so I can get a complete menu even though I’m an adult?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“But that’s absurd!”

“It’s the rules of the Health Board. Take it or leave it.”


I will admit that the restaurant menu illustration is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the sexual harassment that library workers can experience from someone viewing pornography at the library, nor does it address the idea keeping kids from being exposed to pornography. Those are certainly important issues that need to be handled as well. But it is the best way for me to explain how I feel about filtering.

People tend to confuse anti-filtering arguments with being pro-porn. They are not the same. If someone was to show me a filtering software that could prevent people from viewing pornography while allowing all non-pornographic sites through, I’d speak in its favor for libraries that want filtering to use it. However, there isn’t such a thing; it doesn’t exist. Instead, it is much like a fishing net trawling the ocean, pulling up anything in its path. To me, that ‘s an unreasonable imposition.

What is also unreasonable to me is that underlying notion of filtering software; it is based on a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ concept. You cannot be trusted with unfiltered internet access, even if you have no history of deviant web browsing. And if you ask for unfiltered access, you are subject to be judged for having ulterior motives. It turns our American notion of due process on its head.

For myself, it is a lack of trust based out of fear-mongering; every person with unfiltered internet access is a potential offender, a sleeper cell agent waiting to act upon illicit information desires (porn or drugs or otherwise). From this fear mongering, the common refrain of how there is the potential for harm, that this potential is omnipresent and always certain to happen if we lower our guard for one second.

Filtering software is another form of security theater in which people have to be treated like potential threats based on the tiny number of cases. It is the antithesis of dialogue and education, for it sets aside logic in favor of the cheap emotional reaction. When we treat our neighbors with suspicion of potential wrongdoing as part of “the price of doing business”, it does not build a society that brings us together as a nation. It merely reinforces that the ‘other’ is something that should be feared, shunned, and eliminated.

To me, that is not what the library is about. In creating the environment for understanding, there has to be trust given. While a person’s words and actions may erode that away, it won’t be because of a lower starting point on my part. It’s the eternal optimist in me; I want to believe that people are good until proven otherwise. Some might pounce on this statement as evidence of being naiveté, that the world is a cruel place full of evils in around every corner. I am acutely aware of the unfeeling indifference of universe as acted out by nature and society. I am an optimist in spite of it.

In writing this all out, I wonder as to whether it actually advances a dialogue or just adds to the noise. A dialogue would mean that the two sides are actually conversing and listening to one another; the noise is when they are just shouting past each other. There really isn’t a perfect solution, but I think it’s better to examine the people involved in the transaction than focusing on the software.