What Is 'Harmful to Minors'? US EroTICs Partner Investigates Library Search Filters

2 June 2010

The Children’s Internet Protection Act

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is one of the main tools used by the Federal government to control access to the internet in public spaces. CIPA is not the first effort to restrict content on public computers. Earlier attempts to regulate and restrict online content, through the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and Child Online Protection Act (COPA), were deemed unconstitutional on the grounds that they violated First Amendment rights.

The CDA attempted to regulate content by making it a felony to intentionally send “indecent” material to minors. The CDA being found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court led to the creation of COPA. COPA furthered the initial concept of CDA by adding that the transmission of communication considered “harmful to minors”, if made for commercial purposes, is prohibited (ALA, 2010).

The problems surrounding both these acts include (but aren’t limited to) vague definition of terms including “commercial”; whose responsibility it is to set community standards of decency; and infringement on adults' right to privacy (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2010). Unlike the CIPA, COPA had no bearing on libraries but was directed at businesses.

The creation of CIPA was accepted and passed by the US Congress in 2000, directly affecting public schools and libraries. It states that schools and libraries receiving federal funding to purchase computers used to access the internet or to cover related costs for accessing the internet must have:

in place a policy of internet safety for minors that includes the operation of a technology protection measure with respect to any of its computers with internet access that protects access through such computers to visual depictions that are (A)(i) (I) obscene; (II) child pornography, or (III) harmful to minors; (ii) and is enforcing the operation of such technology protection measure during any use of such computers by minors (Title xvii – Children’s Internet Protection Act, p. 3).

The American Library Association (ALA) Intellectual Freedom Committee holds that “use in libraries of software filters to block constitutionally protected speech is inconsistent with the United States Constitution and federal law and may lead to legal exposure for the library and its governing authorities.” ALA considers the problems that result from the use of filtering software include the blocking of materials protected by the First Amendment and the possibility of a viewpoint being imposed as a result of filters that may not offer access all relevant information in order to enable the user to be well-informed.

The act could also imply to parents that their children will be protected from information that the parents do not wish their children to view or read. Additional problems with regard to minors’ rights include the over-blocking of material that is constitutionally protected as well as under-blocking of possibly inappropriate images and text. Though CIPA does not require the filtering of text, the decision to filter material other than visual images is determined locally (Boss, 2004).

Vague definitions in the CIPA, such as the term ‘harmful to minors’, mean that key terms are subjective, with definitions varying from user to user, within communities, and among IT staff. This results in these laws being implemented differently in different places, varying across city, county, and state. The library and its location therefore determine what information a person can access using public library computers.

Filtering software and its problems

To know how these laws affect computer users, we visited a number of libraries. We used search engines on library computers to find out whether filtering is used and if so, what is filtered. We spoke to library staff, including IT persons responsible for installing and managing the filtering systems, in Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, and Delaware to name a few.

Some locations employ filters, while others use terms of service to explain what is allowed to be accessed. One IT staff member from the northeastern region of the US indicated that there are filtering software companies with categories of filtering that a library can choose to use in their software package. Smartfilter, for example, is a filtering program offered by the McAfee security technology company. Smartfilter has more than 30 categories of filtering, ranging from 'Alcohol' to 'Hate Speech' and 'Chat', that a client may choose from. Such filtering software can also be customized based on the user’s preference (McAfee, 2010). At this particular library, they filter under three categories: pornography, malicious software, and phishing.

In places with filters, the items that are filtered are not standard across libraries or software companies. Filtering cannot be fine-tuned. If a filter excludes pornographic or violent content, it is likely to exclude health information as well.

Internet content filters deny access to certain websites based on blacklists or lists of prohibited keywords, a practice which tends to exclude more than the targeted websites (just as a search on a search engine gives unwanted results). With keyword filtering, all of the unrelated items are also blocked. For example, in a large east coast city, the word “anal” seemed to be filtered, which prevented people gaining access to information about (for example) anal cancer as well as any potential sexual content. In one small town library in New England, no filters are being used. At this library, all information can be accessed. However, computer users are asked to sign the terms of reference, which includes a clause that minors use the library and that inappropriate content is not allowed. This means that users who access pornography or other material deemed inappropriate can be asked to stop. The librarian said that they have had very few problems, but that when she worked in a large city, this would not have worked. She explained that in a small community where everyone is familiar with each other, people, including youths, are not likely to overtly breach community standards. However, in a large city with a certain level of anonymity, there were not the same social constraints.

In a library located in the metropolitan area of a large city in the southeastern region of the country, filtering software was only installed on computers used by children, as is the case with some other libraries that we visited. Yet, at this library the age requirement for an adult library card is 13 years old. Though parents must obtain the library card, once a child (under the age of 17) accesses the internet they have the same freedom of information as adults. All internet users must accept the terms of use before accessing the internet that include “I will avoid anything that may be disruptive to other patrons, such as displaying pictures unsuitable for a general audience.” (SAM Library Internet Access Program, Internet Access Manager, 2009). Such vague statements create a grey area as it is unclear what might material might be unsuitable to other patrons, and this offers discretion – if no one complains, any content may be accessible – as well as the possibility of over-vigilance and restricting, In another library, in a large city located in the northeast, filtering software is installed on all computers for both adult and child use. At this library, we also clicked on selected websites that were generated in the search results. Although we were able to search all terms, access was denied for some of these websites. For example, when searching the terms “sex work” and “sex worker rights” we were able to access some sites such as http://www.sexwork101.com, but unable to access www.desireealliance.org. These are both sex worker organization websites. Another example is the search term ‘sex change,’ which blocked the website www.feminizationsurgery.com, yet allowed access to www.srsmiami.com, both websites providing information about sex reassignment surgery and/or about the service provided. In addition, some websites that were allowed may have contained pages that were blocked.

IT staff at this library informed us that the Administration of Public Services determines what is filtered. However, while a library patron may request for a website or term be filtered, a patron may also request that a filtered website be removed from the list of sites filtered.

The two examples of blocked websites mentioned above clearly show how people could potentially be affected by the blocking of information and influenced by incomplete access to information. For example, sex workers and transgender people may be affected by such restrictions to information if they rely on public library computers. Sex workers in the US could access some information from Sex Work Awareness’s sexwork101 site but be deprived of information about the Desiree Alliance, the national network of sex workers in the US. People seeking information about sex reassignment surgery may find out about a particular specialist in Florida but be prevented from accessing the site comparing outcomes from a variety of surgeons.

We have been able to visit libraries in various locations in the eastern part of the US and want to expand the geographic range of this project. The next phase of research will be to enlist others to go to their local libraries and use an online survey to conduct searches and report what they were able to access, and what content, if any, was blocked. The link for the survey is on the SWA site. We'll have a good number of participants because renowned internet persona Audacia Ray will help us promote the survey. We hope readers of genderIT.org in the US will participate>!

Kevicha Echols is a sex educator and a doctoral candidate at Widener University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Melissa Ditmore is a researcher and writer known for her work on sex work, human trafficking. She is a post-doctoral fellow at National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. Echols and Ditmore are affiliated with Sex Work Awareness, a new organization dedicated to promoting information about and advocacy for sex workers. SWA is the USA partner on APC's ERoTics project. This project is helped by Audacia Ray, a media maker and activist who is passionate about sexual rights.


American Library Association (ALA) (2010). CPPA, COPA, CIPA: Which One Is Which? Retrieved February 24, 2010 from http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/ifissues/issuesrelatedlinks/...

ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee (2000). Statement on Library Use of Filtering Software. http://www.ala.org/Template.cfm?Section=IF_Resolutions&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=13090

Boss, R. W. (2004) Meeting CIPA Requirements With Technology. Retrieved February 24, 2010 from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/pla/plapublications/platechnotes/internetfiltering.cfm

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) (2010). COPA (“CDA II”) Legal Challenge Page. Retrieved February 24, 2010 from http://w2.eff.org/legal/cases/ACLU_v_Reno_II/

McAfee (2010). McAfee Smartfilter. Retrieved January 15, 2010 from http://www.mcafee.com/us/enterprise/products/email_and_web_security/web/...

SAM Library Internet Access Program, Internet Access Manager, (2009). Internet Terms of Use.

United States Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) (2001).

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