Looking for material on internet filtering in the EBSCO database in the Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts, I found an 2009 article by Seth Finkelstein that was about filtering. Instead of referring to the “practice” as filtering, he calls it censorship. As I began reading his article titled “Keeping it Clean,” it made me think “Is there a difference between filtering and censorship?” I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to that: I suppose it depends on what your core beliefs are. Finkelstein does have some valid points though.
Who deems what is offensive and what should “not be allowed” and how does that affect a person’s First Amendment rights? Generally speaking, what may be offensive to some people in certain geographic areas may not be to others in a different location. Why should it be deemed offensive to everyone? Why is there “censorware” – software that designed and optimized by an authority to prevent another person from sending or receiving information? There are censorware blacklists that contain sites that are deemed illicit, pornographic, etc. The author was the first to decrypt some of these lists and found that not only were commercial sex sites being targeted, but sex education, gay rights, and even feminism sites were “blacklisted” as well. While there are those who may not agree with the beliefs that some of these other blacklisted sites might have, who are they to say that others shouldn’t have the right to access them?
Overall, the author makes some valid points. I think they hold true for personal web browsing at home. I will say though, that in a library setting, there should be some control over what it viewed and what it not accessible, especially in a public or school library setting. We’ve all heard the story about the whitehouse.com site, and I believe scenarios like that are one reason why there should be filtering software on public computers. It’s not so much that people shouldn’t have access to “questionable content” – it’s more to protect the our children from accidentally accessing material that they really don’t need to see – keeping it clean. Even in relation to adults – is the library really the place to be viewing pornographic or questionable material? Personally, I don’t think so. In most cases, if the material isn’t as “questionable” as what the filtering software thinks it might be, the staff normally has the option to adjust the filtering levels temporarily so that the material can be accessed.
Even though the author refers to this as censorship, and I will agree that he had valid points, I still believe that in certain settings, the censorship is more of a filter: it’s not that a person can’t access it, it’s just that they can’t access is in certain public settings.