Public spaces and the Internet

Internet filters – known colloquially as porn filters – are regularly being discussed in Nordic public libraries. As recently as May 2006 a major conference in Finland addressed this subject, and in Denmark an extensive debate has been going on since 2001 and several conferences have been held. The latest development is that the Ministry of Culture in Denmark has made an offer to all the public libraries of financing the installation of filters. The Ministry’s reason for doing this is primarily the protection of children. The offer has once again fuelled the debate on porn filters, the quality of these and whether we need them at all.

The offer is interesting. Firstly, the Ministry of Culture is prepared to spend several million DKK on a filter product which the libraries may choose to install – or not. Secondly, the offer is made to institutions that generally speaking find it hard to recognise the problem of pornography in the libraries.

Danish as well as foreign studies show that the extent of pornographic displays on the public libraries’ homepages is a minor problem. Most libraries have experienced a few cases that caused some reflections, but on the whole it is not a big problem. People do not visit the library to find pornography.

The investigations revealed that the problem was not pornography as much as the rather noisy behaviour of young people using the PCs. Up till now only a few Danish public libraries have installed filter products.

Problems of misuse have been handled and prevented by placing PCs where the staff can keep an eye on them, the users can keep an eye on each other, and ethical guidelines for use and misuse have been produced.Many libraries have segmented the use of PCs so that some PCs with completely free access can only be used for 15 minutes, whereas more extended use requires a reservation. Some reservation systems require identification of the user, and the more advanced systems time out the user after for example one hour’s usage. A technical solution has thereby been found to the problem of some users not leaving their PC on their own accord.

At the height of the debate in 2001 and 2003, it was conducted on several levels. First of all there was the principal level which had to do with the restriction in access to information. The debate also took place on a technical level, often linked to the first which concerned the quality of filters, including blockage of admissible information and lack of blocking of for example pornographic material. The third level of the debate dealt with the protection of children and young people in the public space.

A test of Danish and foreign filters was conducted by the Royal School of Library and Information Science. The conclusion – in brief – was that some filters were pretty poor, but that the best ones were in fact rather good. The most advanced filters were able to discard almost 100% of pornographic material. The same filters discarded only about 5% of permissible material.

The permissible material was selected from homepages on sex information, health and sickness. So it was a question of pages that often contain words also to be found on pornographic homepages. The extensive test of the filters was done in 2003 and presented at a major conference, and the results were published.

The results have not, however, made an impact on everybody, as we are still seeing the same arguments now about the quality of the filters and particularly the discarding of permissible materials as an argument against the Ministry of Culture’ offer.

The principal argument that has to do with freedom of expression and unlimited access to information, I honestly believe to be rather less convincing in this context. The public libraries have always made selections regarding printed media and in principle also do so in relation to digital resources when creating portals, guidelines etc.

The third argument deals with the relation between the public space and the protection of particularly children against pornography. This is the Danish minister of culture’s primary argument in favour of the decision of offering filters to the libraries. Looking at the actual extent of the problem, it is obvious that the essence of the argument is primarily symbolic. There is nothing wrong in that. Symbolic arguments and actions help forming awareness, perceptions and legitimacy. In many ways it is a strong signal to give out that a protection has been established in the public libraries’ public space. The signal does in no way preclude the public libraries from assuming the educational functions in relation to children and the young which many library members of staff see as the solution instead of filters. There is plenty of work to be done.

It is still interesting, though, that the offer of free filters comes at a time of general agreement that pornography is not really a big problem. Other internet- related problems might well be bigger, but they have so far only formed a small part of public library debate about the Internet. They are phenomena like ‘instant messenger’ and chat, games on the net, dating pages etc. which children and young people use more and more and – according to the daily newspapers – often in an inappropriate way.

The filter product, which has been chosen by the Ministry of Culture on the advice of the Danish National Library Authority, is in fact so flexible that it can also be used for blocking this type of web pages. I should mention that the filter product can be handled and ‘adjusted’ both locally and centrally, and it can be installed in a variety of PCs. Sound technological arguments therefore exist that the filter can be installed locally in such as way as to live up to the individual library’s policy, guidelines and general climate.

The thought might occur that the talk about pornography and filters in the public libraries introduce concepts that can be used as symbolic expressions for many types of material and behaviour, which it might be difficult, for various reasons, to put a name to without stigmatising certain groups. Or to put it another way – when talking about pornography in the libraries we might in fact be talking about a number of phenomena that have to do with unfamiliar and unwanted behaviour and Internet content, which make us feel uneasy, but which can be difficult to verbalise in a politically correct way.

It is possible that the offer of filters reflects an at any rate partly symbolic policy, but this does not prevent the public libraries from using the filter products in a sensible way and use them in a kind of marketing and branding directed at worried parents, where the convincing argument would be that the public library’s PCs are a guarantee that children and young people are not exposed to pornography, misuse of dating pages and illegitimate communication on chat pages.

Basically there is nothing wrong with technological solutions to social and behavioural problems.

It is also desirable for the libraries to take part in an unprejudiced effort to test and assess the quality of filters in relation to an ever more unruly Internet. They have the right professional background for doing so.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science.