Internet Privacy: Pornography in the Library

May 5 21:00 2002 Richard Lowe Print This Article

Answer ... now, if you were walking through a public library with your kids, what emotion would you feel if someone was surfing hardcore ... sites where everyone in the place could loo

Answer truthfully now,Guest Posting if you were walking through a public
library with your kids, what emotion would you feel if someone
was surfing hardcore pornographic sites where everyone in the
place could look over his shoulder and see it? Would you be
embarrassed? Outraged? Upset? Shamed?

Would you want the government to step in?

This is a very thorny and interesting issue. I don't see a clear
cut, obvious solution that magically appearing out of nowhere.
It's not a new issue by any means (pornography existed long
before the internet), but the placing of computer systems hooked
up to the web has increased the magnitude of the problem many

Personally, I don't like my taxes going towards methods for
children to look at porn in libraries. Pornography is harmful
to people in general, but the effect on children can have
catastrophic consequences. Intelligent parents exercise great
control over what their children view until they become able to
discern right from wrong and fantasy from reality.

On the other hand, we do have freedom of speech and expression
and that is very important. Adults must have the right to choose
what materials they want to view and read. How can anyone else
make the decision what is correct for me to see, read or be
exposed to?

I do not want the government telling people what is not and what
is acceptable for viewing. This is not the proper role for our
elected officials, and it is certainly not what a librarian
should be doing. Other people may have other beliefs and
viewpoints and they should be allowed to make their own choices.

Then again, if I am walking through a library, I really do not
appreciate walking by someone who is viewing a hardcore sex site,
and I definitely would not want my own children viewing it. This
violates my own ethical standard.

Pornography is something that people should be viewing in the
privacy of their own homes, not in public places. In our society
sex is something that is practiced in private (or at least not
out in the streets, well, at least not by the majority of
people), and, in my view, an exception should not be made for

If that were the entire issue we could probably all come to an
agreement, but unfortunately there is more to it than that. One
question is where do you draw the line over what's viewable and
what's not? Okay, perhaps we could agree not to allow hardcore
sex sites to be viewed, but what about softcore? What about a
hate site or a site about gay lifestyles or an alternative
religion? Perhaps children should not be exposed to those things
as well.

The second issue is one of filtering technology. The sad fact
is parental filters and controls don't work very well. It's
difficult, if not impossible, for a machine to determine if an
image is pornographic or not (and it certainly cannot
differentiate between filth and art). In fact, the machine even
has trouble with text. For example, this article mentions
pornography and sex several times, and I'll bet that many email
filters would simply block it from being received.

So what's the tradeoff?

Actually, to tell you the truth, I am not exactly sure why
libraries believe it is necessary to give people access to the
internet at all. Yes, a library should be computerized, but there
are plenty of publications available on compact disk and other
media. Perhaps connecting a library to the internet was a mistake
to begin with.

So one possible alternative is to disconnect libraries from the
web entirely. After all, it's getting to the point where most
people are connected in one way or another anyway. Thus, instead
of allowing internet access, a library could build a useful and
complete collection of material available on CD, DVD and so forth
and make that available to the public.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending upon your
viewpoint) internet access for libraries is here to stay. This
is one of the methods that has been chosen to promote going to
the library, to change it from a dusty book tomb to something
which is actually useful to people.

Well, another alternative is instead of trying to filter out the
bad stuff, why not only accept a limited subset of sites? There
could be a library database of reviewed and accepted sites, and
those sites would be the only ones allowed to be viewed or
accessed on the library systems. This is, after all, the way new
books get added to the shelves - someone reads it, decides it
needs to be added to the collection and it is purchased.

Using this method, you could create allow for constitutional
freedoms, much as libraries do with their hardcopy materials,
without allowing the grossly unacceptable material into the

Of course, the question must be asked: who gets to choose what
is acceptable or not?

Personally, I would not envy the people on that committee.

My feeling is libraries are not intended to be pornographic
movie theatres or adult bookstore arcades. PCs are everywhere
and if some teenager or adult wants the material he or she can
find it from their home or whatever.

So I don't see the need to make this material available on
publicly funded library systems. We don't put Hustler and other
materials in public libraries, do we? At least not out in the

However, I also believe that other adults need to be allowed to
make their own decisions as to what's acceptable and what's not.
That is a fundamental right for all adults.

So like I said earlier, this is a thorny issue which will not go
away soon. In fact, it will probably become more heated as time
goes on and more and more materials of all kinds appear on the
internet. I don't envy those who do have to make the hard
decisions, as they will not be liked by anyone.

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Richard Lowe
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