A blog about a possible internet filtering solution for libraries

Library Internet Filtering

Frankly, I think the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Children's Internet Protection Act case was wrong.
It is virtually always wrong to censor information, especially in a library. But that is how the law in the United States stands at the moment and if a library accepts federal funding it must install internet filtering technology on all of its internet enabled computers.

This website is about a particular internet filtering product IF 2K and its application to libraries.

This product is flexible, publishes its block list, is reasonably priced and it can be configured to meet library's particular requirements.

It is not a perfect solution but it is inexpensive and, with librarians' input, the least obnoxious filtering solution on the market.

Jay Currie

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

CIPA Debate at the ALA Council

Members of the ALA Council are engaged in a spirited debate as to how best to respond to the CIPA decision and to the FCC's regulatory forebearance regarding the definition of compliance.

Mark Rosenweig puts the case for proceeding carefully, sceptically and with the ALA's continuing opposition to filtering and support for intellectual freedom foremost in the ALA's consideration:
It is THAT attitude and an apparent indifference or implicit support for it, to which I addressed myself, seeing it as a reflection of what's going on elsewhere in ALA (including among its leadership and divisional representatives) .

They are entitled to their opinions. That doesn't make it a reality. Nor does the defeatist prostration before the vendors (with their wealthy, agenda-laden far-right advocates) in its alleged 'pragmatic' simplicity and its adaptation to 'the new reality', override the principles of ALA endorsed by Council.

Let's not be "spun" into becoming a 'post-democratic' organization by a few confidant assertions that the loss of the CIPA suit means that the fight against censorship-by-filtering is 'history' as they say.
link ala council listserv
James Casey points out that the principled opposition to all filtering backed the ALA into a bit of a corner:
Given that the action of Council in 1997 on the Filtering issue created a "Maginot Line" position which basically enabled the Right to batter ALA with an absurd filtering mandate, I can't see how the plans of our ALA EB and Staff could give any more aid and comfort to the Right than we on Council have already done.
link ala council listserv
Karen Schneider, whose computer and filtering expertise has been at the disposal of the ALA for years, weighs in in favour of ensuring that the ALA get its position and agenda clear before engaging with vendors or outsiders:
Second, the August meeting is for key ALA members and staff. I don't know who is going but I'm sure it will be a good representation of that group. As for bringing in outsiders (including the addle-brained Paul Resnick, who has been on this shtick for a very long time), that isn't the purpose of this meeting and no amount of campaigning by members of ALA Council can make it so.
link ala council listserve
The debate was kicked off with a post from Skip Auld which cites Linda Mielke, a former President of the Public Library Association as saying,
'Say I didn't filter, what am I going to argue? I could say the Supreme Court is wrong; I don't think so. I could say it violates the first amendment; it didn't. I could say I don't need the money, but I'm not willing as a custodian of the public library to make any of those arguments -- I'm thinking of the long-term health of the public library system I run.'
link et seq. ala council list serve
and Paul Resnick, the author of the Kaiser blocking study (and, apparently, someone not on Karen Schneider's Christmas card list) who says,
He believes ALA can play a significant role helping libraries make good choices about filters "[e.g., informing members about differences among products and configurations, (maybe sponsoring competitions among products), working with vendors to increase transparency without giving away trade secrets, etc.]."
What is fascinating is watching intelligent, committed people struggling to come to a principled position on an ideologically, culturally and emotionally laden question. Regardless of whether you believe filtering is the spawn of the devil or the only route to salvation, the public struggles of the ALA council to cope with CIPA is worth reading as an exercise in the free speech and debate all of the librarians are fighting so hard to protect.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Filtering News

Looks like N2H2 is being bought out. Secure Computing issued a press release today announced the all stock acquisition.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

A good first step

The President of the ALA, Carla Hayden, has taken a measured and broad ranging approach to crafting a response to the CIPA decision in a statement issued on July 25, 2003.

Important commitments from the ALA's Executive include:

  Provide libraries with authoritative information regarding their choices and CIPA requirements, as they evaluate options and make decisions regarding the new legal requirements.

  Working to inform and affect the regulatory process to ensure that users receive unfiltered Internet access upon request through the disabling of filtering software,

  Working with libraries to ensure that Internet filter disabling is readily available to all adult library users as specified in the Supreme Court decision,

  Identifying technological options that place a minimum burden on libraries that receive federal funds subject to the CIPA requirements,
Perhaps the most important commitment is here,
Working with the library community, we will continue to explore ways to minimize the impact of the CIPA decision on libraries and to advocate for the public's right to access constitutionally protected speech.
On the heels of the FCC's decision to decline to specify what exactly the CIPA filtering requirements are, President Hayden's casting of the ALA response in terms of helping its member libraries cope with and minimize the effects of CIPA is a reasonable and proactive stance. While it will disappoint anti-filtering purists it takes into account the ALA's responsibility to its members who are stuck with the ugly choice of having to either comply with CIPA or forego fund which they can ill afford to lose.

Friday, July 25, 2003

CIPA Breathing Room

With the FCC order yesterday the pressure is off the public libraries and the American Library Association to arrive at a solution for coping with CIPA. With some planning and a willingness to look for solutions to the filtering issue, the ALA has the opportunity to serve its members, promote freedom of speech and exercise control over the worst aspect of filtering software.

As others have pointed out, the FCC has not set any particular rules for what filters have to actually do beyond what is set out in CIPA itself. Nor has the FCC mandated that CIPA compliance must involve being able to turn the filter off. Indeed, the FCC has largely left CIPA compliance in the hands of the libraries certifying that they have complied.

This reluctance on the part of the FCC to get involved in the nuts and bolts of filtering offers an opportunity to the ALA to create its own "Filtering Code of Ethics" which I have discussed below. But, before it does so, it would make sense for the ALA to provide its members with a legal opinion as to what the minimum requirements are for CIPA compliance.

In my view those requirements are:

- There must be an internet acceptable use policy in force in the library
- There must be filtering software on every computer with internet access in the library
- The filter must be a good faith effort to comply with CIPA's provisions

That would be about as far as the FCC Order and the decision of the Supreme Court go in providing guidance.

Now, beyond those bare bone requirements issues such as transparency, flexibility, disclosure and cost all come into play and this is where the ALA can set standards by way of an ethical code as well as cost of ownership information.

It would be great if, after the late August meeting of the ALA, a firm, proactive position was taken by the ALA to protect the values it has fought for so long by setting a standard for filtering companies which wish to enter the library market.

The decision of the FCC gives the ALA the time needed to formulate and implement the "least worst response" to the CIPA decision.

FCC/CIPA - What isn't there

People hoping for guidence as to what the FCC thinks is required to comply with CIPA will be disappointed with the order issued yesterday. Other than requiring some form of blocking or filtering as part of an overall policy, the FCC remains silent as to what, exactly, that software should do.

Seth Finkelstein, after pointing out he is not a lawyer, points out that in the absence of any new rules the old rules are the best guide available. This should give some comfort to libraries trying to figure out what CIPA compliance actually means:

26. A large majority of commenters express concern that there is no technology protection measure currently available that can successfully block all visual depictions covered by CIPA. Such commenters seek language in the certification or elsewhere "designed to protect those who certify from liability for, or charges of, having made a false statement in the certification" because available technology may not successfully filter or block all such depictions. Commenters are also concerned that technology protection measures may also filter or block visual depictions that are not prohibited under CIPA.

27. We presume Congress did not intend to penalize recipients that act in good faith and in a reasonable manner to implement available technology protection measures. Moreover, this proceeding is not the forum to determine whether such measures are fully effective.
link FCC
The absence of FCC compliance guidelines leaves the field open to the ALA to set its own standards by way of a "Filtering Code of Ethics" or some other standard which promotes the values of intellectual freedom the ALA has been defending before the Supreme Court. It would also take the ball away from the filtering companies who came up with this great reaction:
"We feel these are decisions best left to the free market and our customers to decide," an N2H2 spokesman said Thursday. "So we are pleased by the ruling."
link declan mccullagh news.com

CIPA - FCC Rules

The FCC put out its CIPA rules yesterday. I am studying the document but you can find an ALA response here. And the Order itself here in DOC, TXT, PDFformats.

What is interesting in my reading so far is that there does not seem to be any indication as to what CIPA complying software must actually do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

CIPA Certification

As people wonder how best to cope with CIPA it might be worthwhile to take a look at the actual form which must be filled out. It is two pages and availible in PDF here.
One service which the ALA might want to perform for its members would be to have an general legal opinion written in plain laguage detailing what the ALA believe would be the step to compliance. There is simply no way that each library which proposes to comply with CIPA should have to pay for such a legal opinion. (And, perhaps, the FCC might announce what its opinion as to what constitutes compliance is.)

Monday, July 21, 2003


The debate over at the ALA Council in the wake of the decision to cancel the meeting with internet filtering companies is heating up.

There seems to be some confusion between standard setting and endorsement. Standard setting is an entirely independent process - think Consumer Reports. The ALA would set the criteria it believes are the minimum standards filtering companies should meet. Transparency, flexibility, affordability and lack of agenda all seem important for a standards setting process.

Once those standards have been set filtering companies would be able to submit their software to the ALA which would determine if the software met its standards. If a company's software did it would go on a list of filters which met the standards. No endorsement would be implied. The process is about information not endorsement.

Individual libraries and library systems would be free to consult, or not consult, the ALA list as part of their process in choosing to implement CIPA. The ALA would thus be discharging its responsibility to its members to provide solid advice about filtering alternatives without compromising its stance that filters should not be in the libraries or climbing into bed with the filtering companies.

Friday, July 18, 2003

ALA/Filtering Compnies meeting cancelled

The Executive Board met via conference call late yesterday afternoon to
discuss the Association's response to the CIPA decision.
We are now working on incorporating Board discussion and feedback from
other member leaders and hope to release a final response next week.

We will also not be holding the August meeting with the filtering
companies. Instead, we will use the meeting of member leaders scheduled
for August 23rd to engage in more discussion of how best to communicate
with the filtering companies and what role the Association should play
in this area.
link ALA council board keith michael fiels

This is a very smart decision. It shifts the focus to the ALA's membership's response prior to dealing with filtering companies. This makes a lot of sense and IF2K will be happy to provide any information which the Association or its member leaders decide they require as the result of the August 23rd meeting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

A Soft Approach

Spokesmen for N2H2 Inc. of Seattle and BioNet Systems LLC of Bellevue said the companies will attend a meeting Aug. 14 held by the American Library Association in Washington, D.C.

The meeting is an attempt to introduce filtering companies to libraries.

"It's very important that the filtering industry understand the library market," said Emily Sheketoff, exec director of the library association's Washington, D.C., office.
seattle post intelligencer

There is nothing wrong with meeting with filtering companies. The question is, on whose terms and pursuit of what policy?
The Executive Director of the ALA put out a letter to the Members of the ALA Council in which he contextualizes the proposed August 14, 2003 meeting:
As a result, we do see the planned meeting with filtering companies as
important within our overall strategy, but only as part of a much
broader plan. ALA has expressed no intention of 'developing a
filter', as the press has incorrectly indicated. Nor do we expect
that ALA will certify or otherwise endorse any specific products. The
primary purpose of this meeting and subsequent discussions will be to
emphasize to the filtering companies that the Supreme Court decision
requires that filters be easily disabled upon the request of any adult
user. We also need to be extremely aggressive in pushing for better
disclosure and a reduction in the number of inappropriately blocked
sites, as children have no access to the disabling provisions in the
keith michael fiels 16 july 2003 (public letter posted to ALACOUN)

Being "extremely aggressive" in pushing for "better disclosure" is not, in fact, the approach here.
There is nothing at all to prevent the ALA from asking each of the companies which plans to attend the meeting to provide:

1) a full copy of their block list
2) cost of ownership on a five year basis
3) the process for disabling the filter

These are easy requirements for companies serious about working with libraries to meet their requirements and to do the least possible damage. However, the ALA will not get these concessions if it backs away from any sort of certification or endorsement of specific products. An aggressive strategy would be to tell the filtering companies that the ALA was indeed going to publish and circulate a list of filtering solutions which it believes meets the CIPA standard - however defined - and adhere to a code of good filtering conduct which could be drawn up by the ALA.

The essential element of such a code would be harm reduction in situations where a library cannot afford to do without the E-funding from the Federal Government. If nothing else the ALA should ensure that these vulnerable libraries do not have to waste a lot of limited staff resources figuring out which of the multiple filtering companies is the least worst solution to the CIPA problem.

Such a code of good filtering conduct would include providing 1-3 above as well as a number of other issues which have been raised and will be raised in future. It would also serve notice that the ALA is willing to back its members as they struggle to cope with CIPA

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Great CIPA signs

Check out the "Unfiltered" signage at librarian.net

Market Power

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision on CIPA the ALA has the opportunity to exert a fair bit of pressure on the filtering companies to open up their blocking lists and their methods to scrutiny. With over 90% of the libraries in America currently employing no filtering technology implementing CIPA will be a big issue for the next few months.

It is possible for the ALA to assert its leadership by asking filtering companies to provide their block lists, cost of ownership data and "turn-off" capacity to the ALA for analysis. Filtering companies which complied with this request could be entered on a list of "complying companies". The ALA would not recommend any of these companies; rather it would make this list available to member libraries with whatever comments it saw fit to include.

The decision to filter and which filtering alternative to choose would be left to the local level.

The other thing which the ALA could do at this point is to begin to assemble "white lists" in specific areas such as health, sexuality, homosexuality, teen resources, race, free speech and other potentially blocked topics. These lists could be posted at the ALA website and downloaded by local libraries to ensure that over blocking and agenda driven blocking could be minimized.

The imposition of filtering as a condition of gaining federal grant money for libraries is now law. While there are excellent reasons to continue to challenge this law, pro tem there are libraries all over the country which have to deal with the current state of the law as best they can. The ALA can be of tremendous help to its members by using its clout to prevent the worst excesses of filtering and, with luck, getting the best possible financial terms for filtering software.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Overblocking? You decide.

Pop over to N2H2 and in their Tools in the upper right hand corner hit URL Checker. Type in the IF 2K URL http://www.internetfilter.com.

We were as surprised as we're sure you'll be.

UpdateAs of 12:30 July 16 www.internetfilter.com is no longer categorized as "pornography" at www.n2h2.com....Gee, thanks guys.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Bess on Guard

N2H2 raises its banner in the CIPA world:

Public libraries are the key to providing equal information-access to every individual in a given community. The Internet provides access to information far beyond the confines of the physical library. Unfortunately, the quest for information that has merit and value is sometimes derailed by the intrusion of blatantly objectionable material. This is especially true when it comes to children using the Internet.

Links to pornography, graphic violence or illegal information are just a few examples of search results that are a far cry from the child's initial interest. Needless to say, the viewing of this material may be harmful and generate a lasting impression for some children. The prospect of an individual losing Internet privileges by unintentionally violating the library's Acceptable Use Policy, or worse, creating a potential liability issue are all compelling reasons to find a solution to this problem.

While it is up to libraries to devise their own compliance standards for CIPA there is nothing in CIPA or the SCOTUS decision which requires the filtering of "graphic violence" or whatever "illegal information" may be. But N2H2 is happy to filter them all.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Cite and Insite

A full issue of Cites and Insights devoted to an analsis of the SOCTUS CIPA decsion and its implications for libraries. An excellent roundup of legal, press and interest group reaction and a package to be savoured at leisure.

Very kindly Walt Crawford mentions IF 2K under the heading Commercial Alternatives. My correspondence with Marylaine at Ex Libris is quoted.

Walt Crawford, rightly I think, is a bit sceptical about IF 2K/2003. The scepticism is justified simply because we have not been in the library market nor have we sought the profile N2H2 and Websense have developed.

Walt does, however, question whther we have a full scale blocklist. Just to be clear. Yes we have a block list and we are prepared to make that list available to any user or potential user as well as the ALA. We will be sending Walt the 'A's'.

ALA Cipa Meeting Set

The ALA has set a briefing meeting for Washington on August the 14, 2003.

The briefing is headed,

Supreme Court Decision on the Children's Internet Protection Act
Learn What It Means for Blocking and Filtering In the Library Market

Wednesday, July 09, 2003


Very helpfully the ALA has put up a FAQ page for itsmembers which can be found here.

ALA Filter Facts

Karen G. Schneider produced a very fine technical note entitled Plain Facts About Internet Filtering Software which can be found here. I am putting up the link in my resources column and it is a must read to get a handle on the flaws and foibles of filtering.

Why Meet?

Judith Krug, director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said that in the meeting, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 14, librarians will ask the companies to ensure that their software can easily be turned off and on again by librarians.

The group will also demand that the companies reveal their database of blocked sites to libraries so they can determine which programs best suit the libraries' needs, or they may work with third parties to develop new filtering software.

"If we can't get what we want from the filtering companies, I say let's make our own," Mr. Krug said.
link et. seq. new york times

It is difficult to believe that the ALA will want to meet with companies are not, from the go, willing to disclose their site lists.

David Burt's lame statement:

David Burt, a spokesman for N2H2, said his company's product made disabling the software easy. But he said there might be more disagreement about releasing the list of blocked sites, which would be valuable to the company's competitors.

Besides, he noted, "we would be making available the world's largest and best collection of porn sites, and that's not the business we want to be in."

only underlines the need for the ALA to set basic standards of disclosure before any meeting with filtering companies.

Right now the ALA has a whip hand with the filtering companies including IF 2K. We are prepared to make a complete list of blocked sites availible to any user or potential user - that should be the standard going into the ALA meeting.

w.bloggar active

Anyone who blogs owes it to themselves to at least try w.bloggar.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Block that List

Filed under the just plain silly are the many categories of blockage available at Verso...
Obviously this sort of list is not intended for libraries - the Science block is a giveaway - but it does indicate the levels of odd filtering people seem to want in the internet filtering marketplace.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Filtering is a good thing

via librarystuff

One Solution

A Modest Proposal

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can condition Federal funding for libraries on the libraries' use of censorware (i.e., that a law called CIPA is consistent with the constitution), it's time to take a serious look at the deficiencies of censorware, and what can be done about them.

Suppose you're a librarian who wants to comply with CIPA, but otherwise you want your patrons to have access to as much material on the Net as possible. From your standpoint, the popular censorware products have four problems. (1) They block some unobjectionable material. (2) They fail to block some material that is obscene or harmful to minors. (3) They try to block material that Congress does not require to be blocked, such as certain political speech. (4) They don't let you find out what they block.

(1) and (2) are just facts of life -- no technology can eliminate these problems. But (3) and (4) are solvable -- it's possible to build a censorware program that doesn't try to block anything except as required by the law, and it's possible for a program's vendor to reveal what their product blocks. But of course it's unlikely that the main censorware vendors will give you (3) or (4).

So why doesn't somebody create an open-source censoreware program that is minimally compliant with CIPA? This would give librarians a better option, and it would put pressure on the existing vendors to narrow their blocking lists and to say what they block.

I can understand why people would have been hesitant to create such a program in the past. Most people who want to minimize the intrusiveness of censorware have thus far done so by not using censorware; so there hasn't been much of a market for a narrowly tailored product. But that may change as librarians are forced to use censorware.

Also, censorware opponents have found the lameness and overbreadth of existing censorware useful, especially in court. But now, in libraries at least, that usefulness is mostly past, and it's time to figure out how to cope with CIPA in the least harmful way. More librarian-friendly censorware seems like a good start.

[Note: I must admit that I'm not entirely convinced by my own argument here. But I do think it has some merit and deserves discussion, and nobody else seemed to be saying it. So let the flaming begin!]

Ed Felton at Freedom to Tinker makes his modest proposal at just the right time. It would be a great idea for someone in the open source community to build a blocker, load it with the bare minimum of the sites CIPA requires blocked and then have a library use that blocker to certify CIPA compliance. This might force the FCC to come up with a practical definition of what such compliance actually entails.

Meanwhile, as I wrote to Ed, IF2K like most filtering software is not perfect and so his points #1 and #2 are valid. The best we can do is to check our lists and give librarians the capacity to overide, turn the blocking off easily and create white lists at the local level.

As for his point #3, IF2K has no interest in blocking any political speech however defined. It does have the capacity for librarians to create blacklists which can be used to block racist, violent or hate promoting sites; but that is none of our business.

On point #4: we are happy to make our lists available to users and potential users. We would publish the block list on the web but the bandwidth gets very expensive if the list is posted to slashdot or high traffic kids sites. (And, frankly, the lists themselves are pretty vile.)

Friday, July 04, 2003

The Basics

The early returns from librarians are in and here are some basic requirements:

- the internet filter block list must be either publicly available or available to users
- cost of ownership matters
- "white lists" built locally, regionally or nationally are critical
- the filter has to be easy to turn off

The ALA is working out the details of a meeting between itself and filtering companies. It might be a good idea for the ALA to require each company which wishes to be included to address each of these issues before the meeting. At this point the ALA has a great deal of market power which it can certainly use to ensure that every filtering company which wishes to be considered for library business provides basic information before the ALA even begins to look at its product.

Providing the block list would give the ALA a means of directly comparing the rates of over and underblocking. These lists should not be provided with any stipulations as to confidentiality. If the ALA is willing to provide the bandwidth then each list should be posted so that member libraries can do their own analysis if they wish.

Cost of ownership is basically the total cost, installation and subscription or updates (if any) over five years by number of seats/licences. It should yield a very easy price comparison chart so that libraries, library boards and the ALA could see at a glance the real cost of ownership.


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