eKC feature
June 03, 2005


The morality police at the public library

by Patrick Dobson

The federal government’s extorting the nation’s libraries, and most of us just go along.
The idea was simple: In 1996, the Clinton Administration wanted to help the 97 percent of Internet-lacking schools and libraries get online. But protecting children using Internet access at public libraries from learning things their parents haven’t talked to them about got in the way

Parents and families do not benefit from Internet filtering, says Therese Bigelow, deputy director of Branch and Outreach Services of the Kansas City Public Library. (photo by Patrick Dobson)

The 1996 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) — through a program called E-Rate — funds public school and library Internet access. The 2000 Child Internet Protection Act and its cousin, the Neighborhood Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA and NCIPA) amended the LSTA. In doing so, CIPA has taken the form of a moral monsters, allowing the federal government to twist your local librarian’s arm to filter the Internet though he or she doesn’t want to — and you may not want to either.

According to the American Library Association — an association of notoriously independent-minded librarians (including sensible-coifed and coke-bottle spectacled movie stereotypes) — CIPA and NCIPA “place restrictions on the use of funding that is available through the Library Services and Technology Act, Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and on the Universal Service discount program known as the E-rate. These restrictions take the form of requirements for Internet safety policies and technology which blocks or filters certain material from being accessed through the Internet.”

Public libraries often play a balancing act protecting intellectual freedom and remaining politically neutral. But unlike their employers, most librarians are outspoken about normalizing pressures they face from either end of the political spectrum.

Therese Bigelow, deputy director of Branch and Outreach Services of the Kansas City Public Library, says Congress wanted a way “to create a feeling of responsibility for the use of the Internet in publicly funded libraries

“But the far right painted the picture that Internet access at libraries were harmful, that somehow kids were being victimized. Of course, once that picture is in the public mind, it’s difficult, if not impossible to put the debate back where it belongs — on intellectual freedom.”

Librarians have fielded complaints from library patrons seeing what they consider obscenity on library computer monitors under the control of other patrons.

The man responsible for administering the Kansas City Public Library Internet filter is ambivalent to the job he has to do. “Listen, I’m a tech guy,” says David King. “But we have to have this thing and I do my best to make sure it has the lightest touch.”

King is an Internet specialist who responds to requests for access to banned Web sites and complaints about blocked sites. Complaints about blocked Web sites are few, he says. But when King gets one, he tries to be as liberal as possible when determining whether to block or unblock a Web site.

“It’s pretty obvious what kinds of things don’t fit within the limits of CIPA,” he says. “But the filter catches stuff it shouldn’t. It doesn’t catch stuff it should.”

The feds intrude

The federal government made its way into your public library, traditionally a locally controlled domain, much in the same way it created and controls the Interstate and Federal highway system — with money states and local jurisdictions can hardly afford to turn away.

It happened through the LSTA, a Clinton-era good idea that went awry. The LSTA created E-Rate, a program meant to get money to libraries that struggled to provide even traditional library services in mostly working class regions of the nation, urban and rural. The program funds 20 to 90 percent of the cost for Internet access, hookup and equipment for qualifying libraries.

The LSTA has helped libraries establish and expand Internet access for their patrons, many who have no other way onto the Web. But nearly every city, county and state can claim to need E-Rate. As a result, E-Rate had expanded and by 2002 some 90 percent of all U.S. public libraries received some kind of E-Rate funding.

E-Rate gets its money from a surcharge on interstate long-distance telephone calls, which has provided $13 billion in E-Rate funds from 1998 to 2004. A Federal Communications Commission-appointed nonprofit corporation, the Universal Service Administration Company, administers all E-Rate funds, keeping needed and applied-for funds on hand and investing the rest in private business and government securities.

According to the State E-Rate Coordinator’s Alliance, an association of public libraries, since 1998, the program’s revenues rose steadily from over $1.7 billion to some $2.7 billion in 2003. E-Rate’s revenues dropped over a half billion in 2004 due, in part, to the new accounting rules and increases in the use of wireless telephony.

A number of factors go into determining how much E-Rate goes to libraries in each state, including the number of libraries applying for funding, their equipment needs and Internet provider costs. But the main cost is initial hookup and use of an Internet service provider.

Moral manipulation

To make the federal government’s administration of E-Rate funds easier and more efficient, public schools and libraries first approach authorized plan approval agencies headed by state coordinators. For most states these are offices in the state departments of education and state libraries or library commissions.

Coordinator for E-Rate for Kansas schools is the Department of Education, and for libraries the Kansas State Library’s Office of Library Information Technology, both in Topeka. For Missouri, these are the Columbia-based Missouri Research and Education Network (Morenet), a cooperative office of the Department of Primary and Secondary Education and the State Library.

(In the recent Missouri legislative session, the State Assembly cut funding for the Missouri Education and Research Libraries Information Network, MERLIN, which includes the state inter-library loan system that administered online. The move will most certainly restrict intellectual freedom for patrons of under-funded small town and rural libraries. The Assembly had also moved to cut funding for Morenet, which provides a number of services to public libraries at a low cost but the effort failed.)

Last year, the E-Rate Program granted just over $2.1 billion to libraries in all 50 states, and in territories, possessions and dependencies from Puerto Rico to American Samoa. Missouri libraries received $38 million in grants for Internet services in 2004, down from $43 million in 2003 and $64.7 million in 2002. Kansas received nearly $15 million in 2004, down from $15.3 million in 2003. The Kansas City Public Library will receive $150,990 this year.

The problem with E-Rate…legal extortion

University of Missouri-Kansas City receives E-Rate funds as does the University of Kansas. The libraries at both institutions, however, remain unfiltered. The libraries serve adult users who need unfettered access to research. Interim Dean of Libraries Joan Dean says that the UMKC library and its librarians “are dedicated to providing unfiltered Internet access to UMKC students. And as a publicly funded institution, we provide that for Missouri citizens and students regardless of their enrollment status.”

Such a stance, however, is a balancing act for Dean and other university library administrators across the country. According to several library administrators, pressures to limit Internet access abound. Increased dependency in online services for research, telecommunications and record keeping has caused a growth and centralization of campus Internet services departments.

The services such departments provide, until recently, was the domain of the office or department IT expert. But campuses, seeking to streamline and increase efficiency, have created departments of technocrats who have control of a campus’ technology and who constantly attempt to justify further reach and say in campus affairs. Changes that the Internet services department may make can sometimes limit intellectual freedom by restricting Internet access.

In the cases of the motion picture and recording industries, Internet services departments try to limit or restrict the use of legal information collection software integral to many kinds of research to avoid legal problems and costly lawsuits brought under copyright infringement laws.

In addition, university administrators want to limit student complaints and determine appropriate and legitimate research. In 1997, the U.S. Federal District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma ruled in a case (Loving v. Boren) brought by academics against OU President David Boren that “The OU (Oklahoma University) computer and Internet services do not constitute a public forum. There was no evidence at trial that the facilities have ever been open to the general public or used for public communication.”

From then on, federal courts across the country used Loving as precedent, allowing university administrators, if they deemed necessary, to restrict the use of the Internet and not violate the First Amendment.

“There are students and academics who may legitimately have to access sites that others deem obscene or pornographic,” Dean says. “This is different than a creep who accesses a site and calls over the reference librarian for help. That’s sexual harassment.”

What gains most traction in the public mind is not academics and college students accessing allegedly obscene Web sites, but children. Parents are afraid to let their kids wander the Internet without restraint, but many don’t equip them to research and use the Internet responsibly. Instead, they leave it up to Internet filters.

Because of that reliance, says Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington, DC, office of the American Library Association, “People in government are extorting local library systems by restricting their use of E-Rate funds. We stand wholly behind E-Rate as a way for libraries to get Internet access they wouldn’t have. But under CIPA, if you need the funding, you have to have a filter.”

Internet filtering was once the realm of the local library board and the community. “Many communities had chosen not to filter. But the federal government came in and threatened funding (through LSTA) unless they had a filter,” says Sheketoff.

“This is not a business the federal government should be in. Until CIPA local boards, librarians and people in the community decided what was best for them, what fulfilled their needs as a community. The federal government has taken away that right of determination.”

Families and parents are the best educators, Sheketoff adds. “It’s there that children learn their family values, how to treat other people, and how to deal with what’s coming. The problem is that instead of sinking money into this kind of education, local communities are becoming more and more reliant on computer software.”

In the end, she says, children arrive at college ill prepared to do Internet research, interpret the validity of the information they glean from the Web and protect themselves from predation.

Filters don’t work well, at least not as well as the “protecting children” rhetoric. The result is that kids get around filters to get what they want and haven’t been warned against or educated about.

“No filter has yet been invented,” says Sheketoff, “that prevents people from getting to the elicit material they want or from predators.”

CIPA run rampant

CIPA most affects urban and rural communities that are most likely to need funding to get Internet access and are forced to have Internet filters. Some communities have foregone E-Rate funding because of its strings. Most well known is San Francisco, whose city council ordered the San Francisco Public Library not to take E-Rate funding and decided to make up the loss with a city levy.

But since most library systems have experienced the benefit of increased access to information on the Internet as an added cost to library budgets, they have to do what the feds say or go without.

As a result, normalization moves both directions — against more liberal access and against more restrictions. “Some communities have wanted more restricted access,” says Sheketoff. “And they had that. Only CIPA requirements don’t allow them that level of restriction.”

Just as bad is E-Rate’s reputation. It has been a field for fraud and over billing, both issues related to the program’s mismanagement. The Government Accountability Office has pointed out many instances where unscrupulous individuals, companies and Internet service providers have misused public funds.

The Government Accountability Office revealed in a May 19, 2005, report Greater Involvement by the FCC in Management and Oversight of the E-Rate Program: “Since 1998, the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) E-rate program has committed more than $13 billion to help schools and libraries acquire Internet and telecommunications services. Recently, however, allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse by some E-rate program participants have come to light.”

The FCC, according to the report, has not effectively audited and maintained a watchful eye over E-Rate recipients, and that some of the funds have been used fraudulently. E-Rate recipients have wound up in federal court charged with wire fraud,

And last year, the Bush Administration’s White House Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Communications Commission changed the way Universal Service and the E-Rate Program do their accounting, demanding that Universal Service keep more cash on hand and invest only in government-backed securities.

Accounting issues forced Universal Service to withhold funding from libraries for eight months in 2004. When the new accounting rules went into effect in September, Universal Service called in its investments in private holdings, suffering some $5 million in losses on investment income. Congress began to debate the situation in October last year, and on Dec. 8, 2004 voted to allow Universal Service to sidestep the new accounting procedures through the end of this year.

In March and April of this year, Congress again debated how to improve the program with no conclusion.

Meanwhile, the surcharge on interstate calls has risen from the original 8.9 percent to 10.7 percent this year to keep E-Rate revenues in line with demand. The surcharge will rise to an estimated 21 percent by the end of this year due to accounting issues.

Just tell us, we’ll help.

Most filtering is installed, as at the Kansas City Public Library, on a “tell us what you need and we’ll get it” basis. David King says that not many people request that Web sites be unblocked, “but we don’t know how many people are walking away.”

The American Library Association sued the federal government in 2000, maintaining that mandatory Internet filtering was a violation of the First Amendment.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in The United States, et al v. American Library Association, Inc., that Internet filtering under CIPA was constitutional with caveat — that adults get unfettered Internet access if they want it. As a result, library Internet administrators like King have to unblock Web sites if requested. Unfortunately, many walk away rather than go to the face-to-face interaction needed to get access to the sites they want and sometimes need.

Since Internet filters use words and text as filtering requirements, King says, there is no way to filter purely graphic sites or sites with offending graphic material unless the Web site uses offending terms. Conversely, health-related material can be difficult to access. Sheketoff says that someone doing research on erective dysfunction, for instance, may be unwilling to face another person to ask for the help.

“We only know if someone says something about a blocked Web site,” says King. “We assume that not everyone is.”

“A person in a small community, a large city, or someone’s whose shy,” says Sheketoff, “is not going to want to explore their health or psychological problems with a person not familiar to them or someone they don’t know. The thing about the Internet is anonymity and the wealth of information out there.

“If someone has what they consider to be an embarrassing problem or wants to find out about something others may feel is embarrassing, they are not likely to ask the librarian to unblock access to those sites.”

Just doing research on breast cancer, says Joan Dean, “can cause all kinds of problems with Internet filters.”

No software company providing Internet filter reveals its filtering criteria, such standards are considered trade secrets. The Kansas City Public Library uses a filter from Secure Computing, Inc., called Bess. Secure Computing, formerly N2H2 Technologies, provides what King calls the most reliable filter whose categories are most stable.

“We use Bess because we know what we’re dealing with,” he says. “Categories don’t change and we can tailor the filter to our needs.”

The library filters porn and gambling sites, King says. “We use the minimum filter called for by Missouri law. Missouri state law says we can’t show nasty stuff in public. We try to follow that, but not anything more.”

Still, there are issues. King demonstrates how administrators can arbitrarily decide what’s legitimate and what’s not. There is no guarantee that the people who will soon be hired to help him administer the library’s Internet access will be as open to the possibilities of research.

A recent example of a blocked Web site is that for Citizens for Media Reform, www.cfmr.com. Several members could not access their Web site from Kansas City Public Library computers. They requested their site be unblocked, and King unblocked it as soon as he could assess the site’s content.

The CFMR can hardly be termed harmful to the public or obscene. But one CFMR activist helped a fellow library patron get on the Internet, “only to have him show me the pornographic sites that he was able to access.”

Although some filters screen emails on the basis of the sender or subject line, Therese Bigelow says that no filter also screens emails or email attachments for offensive content.

Librarians: Good guys getting arms twisted

The carrot of federal funding for Internet access has become a stick by which to control a community’s morality and public decency. The only way out of the conundrum is for lawmakers to change the restrictions CIPA has put on E-Rate or for another U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

This last scenario is unlikely for another thirty years, says Sheketoff. “It will take a completely new Supreme Court to even hear the facts of such a case again. But the problem (of restricting information and intellectual freedom) doesn’t go away. It keeps coming and coming.”

Librarians always look like the villains when someone doesn’t get their way with public library Internet. The fact of the matter is that with a few exceptions, most libraries and library systems are under local and state jurisdictions. Some locals don’t like what they find on library shelves or computers and never will. They press their governments to do something about the onslaught of seeming salacious material on the Internet.

In the end, with regard to Internet morality, those pressures went all the way to Congress, who was more than willing to dictate morality on the local level.

Bigelow says she’s been a librarian through book burnings, censorship cases and now Internet filtering. “Parents know what their children need and where they are in their maturity. They have a right to say what’s right for their kids. But they do not have that right for others.

Ultimately, says Sheketoff, “This is where the parents, the community, and the school come into play. Parents need to sit down with their kids and use this as an opportunity to discuss real values, not rely on someone else’s software. If they don’t pay attention, the kids are still out there, wandering around.

“As parents, they wouldn’t let their kids play in the street. They advise them not to talk to strangers. They tell them of all kinds of things to be watchful of and rejoice in. But then, they let the kids run without supervision on the Internet or rely on someone else’s morality and sense of decency.”

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer. He can be contacted at poetrysheet@earthlink.net.

Sources of Additional Information

•E-Rate and libraries:
•CIPA legal history:
•U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. ALA:
•American Library Association:
•U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. American Library Association, 2002:
•State E-Rate Coordinators:
•State E-Rate Coordinators Alliance:
•Missouri State Library:
•Government Accountability Office reports on diminishing funding for E-Rate due to new wireless technologies:
•Government Accountability Office report on problems with E-Rate administration and recommended remedies:
•Secure Computing, Inc., Internet filtering categories:



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