February 04, 2012

On porn in libraries.

On FB today I saw a share going around trying to rouse the troops against the Seattle Public Library, which is fighting to keep pornography accessible from their computers. How terrible! Demeaning to women! Etc, etc. Much was made of the gross stuff some people look at, the occasional masturbators, and of course, what about the children?

But let's back up a second. And I don't mean revisiting your opinion about pornography—there is a compelling case to be made that it is deeply problematic in a lot of ways, and also a compelling case to be made about its existence being necessary in any system that supports sexual freedom. I have friends on both sides of that, and I'm not going to argue that point at all.

What I want to re-examine is the idea that pornography should be banned or blocked from public-available computers in libraries—even if pornography is itself a bad thing. Obviously there's no problem with kicking out (and banning) library users for masturbating in public, but there are big problems with banning users from looking at pornography in libraries. The two big ones that come to mind are that

  1. it puts libraries in the business of deciding what is bad enough to count as "pornography"; and
  2. it will inevitably block legitimate use of the computers by people who have no reliable other access to computers or the internet.
Both should be total dealbreakers on the issue of blocking porn from library machines or banning users that look at porn in the library.

I'll deal with the second issue first. Let's assume for a moment that you deem those who actually look at porn in the library to be perverts and therefore not making legitimate use of the machines. I have been sent camouflaged links to porn by friends who thought it would be funny (ha ha, made you click; think rickrolling). I have followed links to things that are considered pornography by some because they were images that had been discussed in the news and I wanted to figure out what they were all talking about, because I don't generally trust journalists to accurately report that sort of thing. And of course nearly everybody manages to get a popup ad from time to time that has rather more explicit images than expected. Even under the premise that porn itself is not a legitimate use of the machine, which you may or may not agree with, all of those are cases where "legitimate" users will be or may be seen as viewing porn and therefore liable to get kicked out or banned. This is unacceptable.

The other point is even worse, though. Here's the real lurking problem in this debate: not everyone agrees where the edges of pornography are, even among people that agree that porn is "bad" (for some definition of "bad"). I routinely see news about information and instruction regarding breastfeeding getting blanned or blocked in different forums because someone with a stick up their butt claims that a female breast is pornographic even (sometimes especially, arghh) when it is feeding an infant. In other locations, any content involving homosexuality, including just kissing and holding hands, is liable to get blocked under pornography bans. Furthermore, auto-blocking software, whether it is rule-based ("does the page contain these keywords?", etc) or URL-list-based ("block all requests for xxx-sexy-boys.com"), always ALWAYS manages to block more than it is supposed to; and the supposed "administrators" (i.e. librarians) do not always have the technical knowhow, or in some cases even the permission, to white-list clearly acceptable sites that got blocked. Is poor people's access to those sites just an acceptable casualty in a war on pornography?

Public libraries are our safe haven of information access, and cuts and blocks and other policies that affect them are made twice as bad because they have a disproportionately large effect on the poor, for whom the library is actually a need and not just a convenience. There is a really, incredibly, phenomenally high burden of proof that you have to pass before you get to block that information. "Pornography", however you define it, doesn't even come close.

If you agree, consider sending a message to the Seattle Public Library in support of their current position; I actually used the protestors' site to send the following:

I'm using SLP's site because it's convenient, but I totally disagree with their message. Don't give in to them! Public libraries are too valuable a resource to burden them with the job of deciding what is or is not porn, whether someone intentionally went to a link, etc; and more importantly, any system at all that auto-blocks content will block _legitimate_ content as well, a privation that will fall disproportionately upon the poor, who have no other reliable access to computers or the internet.
I put the subject as "Don't give in to the censors!" and figured that this would be the best way to get through to all the people that are also getting the negative message!

(Adapted from a post to Facebook.)

"Obama ran as a visionary and leads as a legislator. That's been the most disappointing thing about him." --Jon Stewart

Posted by blahedo at 3:23pm on 4 Feb 2012
I'm of a real mixed mind on this ... but not for the reasons one might think. For years, my mother worked as the head bookkeeper in a library system. As such, she was exposed to the dilemma that librarians face over the issue. The problem is ... well, being caught between the anarchists and the absentee parents, who both abuse what a "library" is supposed to be. The anarchists would use the library public computers to view porn. And not artistic porn either --- the most deliberately vile, disgusting things the Internet has to offer. They weren't interested in viewing the porn themselves, but instead were watching the reactions of the innocent patrons walking by and seeing those images. They'd also print many of those images --- not because they wanted printouts, but so that the patrons printing resumes or homework assignments or whatever would have to see them as they looked for their own printouts. The absentee parents would ... well, drop off their kids at the library for hours every afternoon while they did other things. The kids, with no particular task at hand, would wander the library, and discover items clearly not intended for underage viewing. Of course, both sides would claim that they were entitled as "taxpayers" to that sort of activity. The "real" answer, of course, is for librarians to intervene --- kicking out patrons who are deliberately obscene, and refusing to admit underage patrons without supervision. But that turns librarians into security guards, which is a role they certainly don't want. I wish there was an easy answer. Unfortunately, the real answer is for everyone --- collectively --- to grow up and act maturely. Alas, 'tis often not to be. Posted by Jim Huggins at 4:45pm on 4 Feb 2012
The problem is that a library is a public space. What one user does on their computer affects those around them. In particular, I don't want my kids exposed to that stuff when we visit the library together. It's true that some users only have access to the Internet through the public library -- but the best solution to that is to find ways to give them cheap or free access at home. It's also true that we don't want librarians determining what we can view or see in the privacy of our own homes, but public use of a public terminal is a different matter. Posted by Robert Marmorstein at 7:14pm on 4 Feb 2012
These don't seem to actually be arguments against any of my points. In particular, that there are various reasons that a library patron might be looking at something that someone might consider pornographic, and that different people consider different things to be pornographic. It's awfully glib to just say the patrons ought to have internet at home, because in fact, many of them don't; they may not even have a home. Public libraries are for everyone to use; I'm absolutely unwilling to say that public libraries are for everyone to use but only to look up things that Robert Marmorstein finds acceptable for his children to see. Or, worse, the intersection of what any US adult finds acceptable for any of their children to see. Posted by blahedo at 1:04am on 5 Feb 2012
Boiling the proposed rule down to its simplest form, it would be "Don't be a dick." This seems like a clear and obvious rule, but sadly since people generally can't agree on just what constitutes being a dick in the first place, it's not a rule that can be made. Thus, yes, I agree with your position. The best a library can possibly be expected to do is put up a sign stating "This facility caters to The Public. This includes people whose views disagree with yours, your parents', and your religion's idea of What is Proper. This is a Public Facility. We are not responsible for your sense of offendedness. You are warned." Posted by Shalom Owen at 10:43am on 5 Feb 2012
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