FTRW 2009 – Internet Filtering in Ontario Lbraries?

I started the week talking about a discussion the librarians at RPL were having about the issue of patrons viewing pornography on the public access computers.  Although this is an important philosophical discussion, I'm happy to report that (at least as far as I know), patrons' viewing isn't being monitored or censored and no policy changes, either at the library or at other levels, are being contemplated. 

Libraries in Ontario may not be so lucky.  A retired police officer in Cambridge Ontario saw someone looking at porn in the library and began a campaign to get filters on the library's computers.  That's typical enough and happens with some degree of regularity in all public libraries I suspect. 

But this situation has escalated.  A local MPP in Cambridge took up the cause and has introduced a private members' bill that would legally require all school and public libraries in the province to install internet filters. It has gone through a first reading, and even though the OLA website points out that Private Members' bills rarely get passed, this is still cause for great concern, especially since it was introduced as an addendum to an existing private member's bill which the Cambridge MPP, Gerry Martiniuk has been trying to pass for awhile. The main thrust of the existing bill is to make public the list of sexual offenders. In other words, Martiniuk is lumping  access to library computers with pedophiles and other sex offenders (And unfortunately, I'm sure he's not the only one who sees this as a connection – both in the wider world and in the library community itself.)

Many observers point out that Cambridge is “the only library system in the Region that doesn't use filters.” (which means that Kitchener, Waterloo, and the Region of Waterloo all filter at least the computers in their children's areas). The big difference is that Cambridge, with the full support of its board, is actively choosing not to filter.  If this law passed, they could be legally required to filter as could every other public library in Ontario as well. 

There has been some local media coverage of this story and many letters to the editor.  But they've been fairly one-sided because (and I speak from personal experience here), it's pretty hard to come out in favour of porn – although there are some who are very articulate in the attempt. 

Whether this bill has any impact remains to be seen but if there's any further developments, I'll post an update. 

Comments 6

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Thanks for posting this and bringing it to people's attention, Jason. I work at the Cambridge library and it's been tough to sit silent as patrons come in and say, “so, I understand that we're allowed to view porn here?” Gah! NO! Technically being able to access porn does not mean the same thing as being “allowed” to view it. If there are children in the area, if a patron complains, if a librarian observes a patron viewing inappropriate material, we ask them to close the website and if they continue viewing the material then we can ask them to leave. Our computers have privacy screens and they actually work – even when helping a patron I find it hard to see the screen unless I am directly in front of the computer. And child porn is illegal, so of course we're not promoting or advocating for the viewing of that – we'd be getting police involved or taking responsible action.
    Like you say, it's pretty hard to sound like you're supporting porn. Especially as the children's librarian, the one argument I keep thinking of is that legal porn is still illegal for anyone under 18, and kids can technically access it on our computers. Which is why we make a big deal about parents taking an active role in monitoring their child's computer use, both at home and in the library. But it's precisely because I am the children's librarian that I feel I have to advocate on their behalf – children have the same right to access information as adults do.
    A very telling example is that one of our branches is located in a Catholic high-school library. It's a joint library. In the morning when the library is closed to the public, the students can still use it. There are some computers which are the school's – and they are filtered. So, you have the same building, the same large room in fact, with both filtered and unfiltered computers. And students at that school have had assignments where they could not access the information needed for their research, homework, and projects from their school computers. They had to wait until the pubic library hours and use a public library computer in order to get information they needed. In this case it was for a project on prostate cancer. The debate about filtering is not just theoretical. We have instances and examples within Cambridge that demonstrate what kind of legitimate information is blocked when filters are in place.
    The reality is that filters do not work 100%. Having filters would not prevent anyone from viewing porn which came by email, on a USB jump drive, or on laptops which connect to the wireless Internet that many libraries – including Cambridge – provide.
    Something which has been overlooked in much of the discussion within the Cambridge community is that Rob Nichol, the former police officer who started the initial complaint process and who has been very vocal about the library getting filters, has a very vested interest in the matter. HE RUNS AN INTERNET FILTERING COMPANY. Of course, of course!, he cannot or will not admit that filters don't work.
    There is some good news, though. A very well-written letter from Ken Roberts, the president of CLA, appeared this week in the Record (in response to this op-ed piece by a local, vocal minister who's leading an anti-pornography campaign). CLA is watching the legislation and I hope will fight it. And I think OLA is monitoring the situation.
    Like you said, at least in Saskatchewan the debate is as it should be: between the library and its community. Many libraries choose to filter. But if that right is taken away, then it is a very slippery slope towards other forms of censorship.
    Great FTRW topic. Thanks again.

    Posted 01 Mar 2009 at 7:38 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    One more thing, (then I'll get off the soapbox):
    the library is an easy target, I think. In Cambridge in particular, filtering and open access and intellectual freedom have been lumped in to a larger campaign against pornography. Yet I see none of these people actually targeting the people who make or distribute porn. If they're so against it, if they find it so harmful (as the minister wrote in his article), then why are they not trying to make all porn illegal?
    They know that's a battle they can't win. That's why. So instead they're going after libraries, forgetting perhaps that there are other issues besides just porn that we take into consideration when deciding whether to filter or not.

    Posted 01 Mar 2009 at 7:42 pm
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    This was sent by email today to public and school library listservs in Ontario:
    From: Federation of Ontario Public Libraries
    To: All Ontario Public Libraries
    Date: February 24, 2009
    Dear Federation Members,
    Re: Bill 128
    As many of you know, the Private Member’s bill, Bill 128 received First Reading in the Ontario Legislature on November 19, 2008. This Bill would require public libraries to block access on the Internet to sexually explicit material, including written material, pictures and recordings specifically through use of filtering software. Because the proposed legislation was introduced by an MPP from an opposition party, its chances of successfully becoming law are very slim. However, the Bill is causing controversy among some municipal councils. This email provides public library boards with suggested strategies and resource materials for dealing with this sensitive issue.
    The Federation’s Position
    The Federation of Ontario Public Libraries does not support Bill 128. Our position is consistent with Internet access policies of the Ontario Library Association (OLA) and the Canadian Library Association (CLA). We believe public libraries have a basic responsibility to uphold Canada’s Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.
    The Internet has many wonderful resources for children, but it is
    unregulated. Since there is no foolproof way to eliminate inappropriate material, public libraries are taking special measures to instruct and protect children in their use of the Internet. Most public library boards have approved policies and procedures on Internet access for children.
    While filters can have a place in a broader program to protect children from inappropriate materials, they do not guarantee that all inappropriate material will be blocked. Filters can also block useful material. Therefore they should be considered as only one element in the library’s program to provide Internet service in a safe and welcoming environment.
    With the features available today on wireless devices such as cell phones and with the variety of other public places without filters, controlling a child's access to the Internet has become a complex societal issue. We believe the best and most reliable filter is a child’s parent or guardian.
    Recommended Strategies
    The Federation recommends that Ontario’s public libraries take the following action:
    1. Encourage your local councils not to support Bill 128. Talk to your
    C.A.O. now. Don’t wait for your council to meet.
    2. Inform your councils of the policies and procedures that you already have in place.
    3. Be prepared to respond to calls from the media.
    4. Get your library board to formulate its own position on Bill 128 at its next meeting.
    In making your case, point out that the Bill is premised on several false assumptions:
    1. That no laws exist to protect children to exposure of inappropriate material. In fact, the Criminal Code makes it an offence to view child pornography on an Internet browser.
    2. That filtering works. As mentioned above, filters often block useful material.
    3. That public libraries have no policies and procedures in place for dealing with this issue. In fact, the vast majority of libraries do. Refer to Dr. Alvin M. Schrader’s study for CLA, which lists many existing Internet access policies across Canada:
    4. That the provincial government runs public libraries in Ontario. In fact, municipalities fund, on average, 85% of the on-going operations of public libraries.
    Resource Materials
    You might find the following resource materials helpful in dealing with the issue of Internet access:
    1. CLA’s Net Safe, Net Smart Toolkit at:
    It contains a copy of Have a Safe Trip, a parent’s guide to safety on the Internet, which has been distributed through public libraries across the country since 1998. The toolkit also contains a media guide with sample questions and answers on Internet access in the library (page 13).
    2. OLA’s Statement on The Intellectual Rights of the Individual
    3. Ontario Library Information Technology Association’s Internet Access Toolkit
    4. CLA’s Position Statement on Internet Access
    Please keep us informed of developments within your municipality. And let us know how we can assist you further.
    Thank you.
    Marzio Apolloni
    Chair of the Board of Directors
    Federation of Ontario Public Libraries
    c/o North York Central Library
    5120 Yonge Street, Toronto M2N 5N9
    Tel: (416) 395-5638
    “One Voice for Ontario Public Libraries”

    Posted 02 Mar 2009 at 9:35 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    Thanks for this insight and further information. Really appreciated!

    Posted 07 Mar 2009 at 11:37 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    To be honest, I think it's because people don't understand the role of the public library in all of this and the core values of librarianship.
    These people don't necessarily want to outlaw porn – they understand that there will be strip clubs and XXX video stores and the like. They don't understand why a library would even want to be connected to those types of places. To them, we're closer to schools and churches and hospitals and only sullying ourselves by allowing icky porn to be accessed by a small majority of our patrons.
    But they don't see factors like the issue of is it legal/illegal, the long history of the library in the battle against censorship in all its forms or the fact that it's a slippery slope once you allow people to start coming up with their own definitions of what shouldn't be allowed in the library – oops, good-bye art house DVD's, oops, good-bye birthing videos for teen mothers, oops, goodbye breastfeeding videos.
    “Oh, we'd never censor THOSE types of materials” they cry. “That's different.” Right.
    And the next patron to get upset (or the next person we hire?!?) sees it slightly different and this person who didn't want porn in the library now has to explain why we don't have porn but we do allow naked female breasts to be shown. The new complainant, perhaps for cultural or religious or societal reasons just doesn't see it and suddenly the person who wanted to remove porn is thrust into the role of defending the “evil, offensive” materials did find okay for a library setting. Except now, there's a strong precedent of removing legal material that others may find objectionable so you have less of a leg to stand on when resisting other challenges.
    This is so clear to me, I simply can't understand how others can't see the logic. (Lack of self-awareness of the personal biases people bring to the library is probably a big part of it, I think.)
    “First they came for the Jews and I was silent because I was not a Jew…”

    Posted 07 Mar 2009 at 11:49 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    Great stuff. I was talking to a colleague who felt *very* strongly that any librarian who allows internet filtering into their library is abdicating their professional responsibility.
    Looking back, I wonder if library school did enough to inform students of the core values of librarianship and the role of professionals?
    We were at the medi-clinic the other night and there was a note that one of the doctors on staff wouldn't prescribe birth control (presumably for religious reasons) and I just shudder when I see examples of people allowing their personal beliefs to influence their role as professionals. Shea has a lot of issues with some of the public health policies in this province. But she goes ahead and gives that information to new mothers and others because that's her professional role. In that case, it's even worse because she's often giving people advice that leads to them making less healthy decisions for their children!

    Posted 07 Mar 2009 at 11:57 pm

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