XXX Debate | London Free Press

XXX Debate
Policing porn at public libraries in London is shaping up to be a battle over a thorny issue
By: Chip Martin, The London Free Press 

 

Porn and the public library. It's a surprisingly divisive issue.

Heels are being dug in on both sides of the upcoming debate about whether computers at London Public Library should be filtered to bar access to "inappropriate" material online.

For both sides, porn is merely a four-letter word.

Community activists led by Megan Walker have persuaded a city council committee to recommend putting filters on all library computers -- not just those used by children -- to prevent viewing of porn. Council will consider the issue Monday.

Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women's Centre, links porn to oppression of women and a threat to their safety and security.

"A compelling case has been made," Mayor Joe Fontana said after hearing Walker's case. Other politicians applauded.

In Windsor, a recent complaint about Internet viewing prompted its library board chief last week to order filters installed on adult computers while the board reviews its policy.

"I instructed CEO Barry Holmes to install filters blocking porn," chairperson Al Maghnieh said. "The user guidelines policy will be updated at the next board meeting."

In London, if council asks the library to filter its computers, it can't order the move.

As Josh Morgan, chairperson of the London Public Library board, notes: "Council can ask us to do stuff, but we are an independent and autonomous board, and I think it's important for her (Walker) to present to us as well."

The board, which meets again Sept. 22, has opposed imposing censorship on its patrons because libraries view themselves as unfettered "gateways" to information. Like most others, the library uses filters only on computers used by children.

As one writer described the prevailing view of librarians: "No matter how ill-conceived or well-intentioned the reason, any restriction on freedom of expression and the right to receive information constitutes censorship."

Libraries also draw some inspiration from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Civil libertarians also oppose any disruption of the free flow of information.

Morgan said the issue is a tough one for libraries.

"We recognize this is something important to the community," he said. "It is a divisive debate, and we have targeted it as a priority for review," every November.

Library figures show few complaints about viewing of inappropriate Internet content.

In 2010, there were about 660,000 log-ins on library computers or on its wireless system, the library reports. In the first 11 months of 2010, of 511 complaints filed, 10 related to viewing objectionable Internet content.

Its ongoing review of the knotty Internet issue has produced filtered computers for kids, privacy screens for adult-access computers and education for library staff about those policies and the law.

If the library decided to do more, Morgan said it would have to look at options ranging from persuasion to sanctions.

"It's a very difficult question," he said. "There is a range of options. It could be a combination of them might be most effective."

The next annual review of the Internet policy will soon be underway. Morgan said if Walker has new information to share with the new library board, he expects she will come forward.

E-mail chip.martin@sunmedia.ca, or follow Chipatlfpress on Twitter.

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WHAT OTHER CITIES DO

KITCHENER PUBLIC LIBRARY

Porn complaints pale in comparison to those about parking, says Sonia Lewis, chief executive of Kitchener Public Library.

"It's the No. 1 complaint," she said of parking. Those about Internet viewing are relatively insignificant and about the same or less than in London.

"We have next to no complaints," Lewis said.

"We try to locate computer equipment in highly visible locations, where there is a lot of traffic. What we find as much more effective than filtering is the self-policing people do."

Most computers also are in the sight lines of staff members, and filters control the computers used by children. Privacy screens are attached to those for adults.

"Kitchener and London are very similar in approaches," Lewis said, although in Cambridge filters aren't used and the system relies on education and training.

WINDSOR PUBLIC LIBRARY

"We take similar steps," library chief executive Barry Holmes said, comparing his situation to London. "We don't filter adults."

But that is about to be reviewed.

Filters control computers used by children with privacy screens for adults. And Windsor has a complaints-based process along with staff training and education about the law.

"It's a balancing of issues," Holmes said. "It's a very complicated issue, and that's why libraries try to have policy around this."

The ongoing concern is a filter may impair access to information, "penalizing others from getting the information they need," he said.

Holmes said the ratio of Internet complaints is similar to that in London.

"But not all cases are reported," he said. "It seems to happen every once in a while and there needs to be education around it."

 

 

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