Monthly Archives: May 2010

Is censorship still censorship on the Internet?

(Short answer: Yes.)

This article floated across my feed reader yesterday: Ruling: Washington Libraries Can Deny Adults Unfiltered Internet. From what I can gather, the Washington Supreme Court decided that it was okay for libraries to refuse to turn off an Internet filter at an adult patron’s request. I was going to give it the benefit of the doubt, try to see all sides of the issue, but no, this is ridiculous.

“A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote. “It can make the same choices about Internet access.”

Well…yeah, kind of. A library can certainly make decisions about what they will and won’t collect. But deciding that you won’t collect, say, books on gay rights because you think that material is inappropriate is also censorship. Even if it’s done at the collection development stage, excluding material from the collection for ideological reasons is censorship. Add to that the fact that the Internet is not like books: there is no way to separate the “good” from the “bad” on the Internet without locking access down to a bare handful of sites, and that is pretty much definitely not okay. (Is it, actually? Would a library be able to say “we’ll allow access to Hotmail and Yahoo and this list of library-approved reference sites but nothing else”? Even if that would pass constitutional muster, your patrons would explode.)

This is the quote that really drives me crazy, though:

Washington State Librarian Jan Walsh also praised the decision. “It strikes a blow for kids and it strikes a blow for taxpayers,” she stated, by giving public libraries “flexibility to reflect their community values as they adopt Internet policies and use of filters on certain content.”

What does this have to do with kids?!? If the computers are filtered and an adult requests that the filter be removed so they can look at perfectly legitimate stuff that’s been blocked by the filter — which phenomenon is, I hate to tell you something you’ll never be able to avoid — what does this have to do with kids? At all?

I started reading a book yesterday called Harmful to Minors, which was recommended on a totally unrelated blog somewhere. The author argues that American culture has gone completely insane on this whole protect-the-kids-from-sex craze, and I have to agree. When adults using the Internet at their public library (increasingly the only place adults *have* to use the Internet, particularly in a terrible economy when an Internet subscription at home is just not affordable) are being denied information in the name of “protecting the children,” we’ve completely lost perspective.

In totally unrelated news, patrons are coming up with “clever” ways to censor library collections themselves. Librarians still disapprove.

Choose Privacy

It’s Choose Privacy Week, and I had to haul myself out of the midst of finals and job hunting to post about it. As someone who’s spent a huge chunk of her social life online, starting in middle school, this is a big deal to me.

I deleted my Facebook account earlier this year because their privacy standards were just disgraceful. (Actually, I disabled my Facebook — it took Dan Yoder’s Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook for me to figure out how to delete it, and if that doesn’t bother you a little, it should.) Of course, that was an easy decision for me; I’ve never used Facebook very much. The other online service I can imagine having to quite for privacy reasons would be Google, and that would be a huge production. I’m not worried about Google yet, but I might be some time in the future.

By the time I was in college, I was constantly getting advice about what I should and shouldn’t allow to exist about me online. Your future employers can find you, I was told. Don’t post anything online you wouldn’t want your employer to know about. This is, to someone who’s grown up online, ridiculous. It was ridiculous to me, and it’s even more ridiculous to kids who are in high school and college now, when half of their lives or more are online and they can’t imagine their lives without it. And yet, somehow, the solution is to control your own information rather than to expect the people who promised your information would be secure to keep it that way. (Obligatory xkcd reference: 137. Warning, foul but justified language.)

I have more than one online identity; I’ve always used a pseudonym and it’s only in grad school that I’ve started putting my real name out there. The two are as disconnected as I can make them, and while I’m sure someone could connect the two if they really, really wanted, I’m reasonably comfortable with the way things are right now. I would not be comfortable if my multiple online identities came crashing in to one another. I have posted nothing online that I’m ashamed of, and nothing that should jeopardize my professional reputation or job chances — but there’s still a gap between should and could, and I have posted things that fall into that gap.

My favorite piece on this topic I’ve seen recently is this paper by dana boyd from this year’s SXSW conference. “No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy,” she says, “Privacy Is Not Dead.” I can’t help but think that the “privileged straight white male” part of that sentence might be the most important part. Some people have something to lose through no fault of their own. They, too, should be able to use the Internet and social media to connect with their friends and family, to form communities, to explore identities without sacrificing their jobs, reputations, and sometimes their safety. It’s important to hold companies like Facebook responsible for their privacy policies — and privacy violations — and make sure that they understand that we won’t stand for it forever.

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