[TechTalk] Filtering Fiasco

Sheila O'Flaherty is not a pervert. In fact, when she uses the Internet on computers provided by the Jackson-Hinds library system, she is usually in search of more information about books. Nevertheless, she says the library's Internet filtering software blocks many of the sites she tries to access.

"It's discouraging to be looking for information on books and authors and then have the sites come up blocked," O'Flaherty said.

Blocked sites include a page on reading guidelines to "Girl with a Pearl Earring," by Tracy Chevalier, which O'Flaherty had checked out from the library at the time, and another on Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The filtering software blocked a site from the Los Angeles Public Library system on Asian-American and Asian writers, along with reading guidelines for Ole Rolvaag, and Random House's list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

It blocked a link on the Web site for Square Books of Oxford, Miss., that opened the bookstore's children's store. The Web site of the conservative American Family Association was blocked, along with an article by Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Review of Books, and all of Salon.com.

At one point, the filtering software even blocked O'Flaherty from seeing a list of books she had checked out from the library.

O'Flaherty says she has made many attempts to bring inappropriately blocked sites to the library administration's attention, with little to show for her efforts.

"(The Internet filtering company) used to have a page where you could fill out a form saying you thought a page had been blocked incorrectly, and then they would get back to you in a couple of days. But now that page isn't available anymore."

For a few months, library personnel told O'Flaherty that if she wanted to challenge a blocked site she should print out the blocked page and hand it over to an attendant. "It wasn't until the fourth or fifth time I handed in a page that I noticed they didn't even have the URLs on them, so obviously no one higher up was doing anything about getting the sites unblocked."

More recently, library personnel told O'Flaherty she had to contact the library's IT administrator, but this was impossible since that office was vacant until three months ago. In fact, staff at the library's information research center have provided inconsistent answers to questions about filtering, with some claiming that only the filtering company itself can unblock pages, and others denying outright that the filtering can be disabled at all.

Integrity Online provides Internet filtering for the library system. The company bills itself as the largest Internet filtering company in the country, and is headquartered here in Jackson, Miss.

Integrity President Skip Mathews says that most of his company's clients are individuals and families, but they also provide filtering for dozens of libraries. He bristles at any mention of censorship. "Our intent as a company is not to decide what people see and don't see," Mathews said. "We rely on our clients to provide feedback to help us refine the system."

Integrity blocks sites based on artificial intelligence routines that try to identify inappropriate content. Mathews says the AI filters are much more sophisticated than they were even a few years ago. Nevertheless, some legitimate sites get blocked by mistake, which is why Integrity offers a form to report inappropriately blocked sites.

Integrity does not offer this for the library, Mathews says, because library officials can unblock sites themselves. "Eudora Welty has the ability to unblock any site they want," Mathews said. "Maybe we need to remind them that they can do that themselves."

"That's a case of staff training that will be addressed," said Marsha Case, the library's assistant director of technical services, of staff's inconsistent answers on unblocked pages.

Executive Director Carolyn McCallum says the library has little choice in using filters. "CIPA requires us to use filters to get federal funding for the e-rate, which provides discounts for Internet access for libraries and schools."

"There's a fee on your phone bill that goes into a universal services fund managed by the FCC," Case added. "In order to get the e-rate, or any other federal grant for that matter, we have to be compliant with CIPA."

CIPA is the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires all schools and libraries receiving federal funds to have blocking software installed by default, for both minors and adults. The American Civil Liberties Union sought to have CIPA overturned in U.S. v. Multnomah County Library et al. and U.S. v. American Library Association. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2003, but ambiguity remains. The fractured decision upheld CIPA but without any majority opinion—and with the understanding that the law would not limit adult access to information.

"There were several separate decisions in the Supreme Court's decision that upheld CIPA," said Aden Fine, a staff attorney with the ACLU in New York.

"The court upheld CIPA, but they basically rewrote how it would work for adults. They assumed that the harm caused by filters would be limited because adults would be able to turn it off, but now we're seeing that isn't always happening. Filters overblock and underblock—they block things they shouldn't, and they miss things they should. I am sure there will be more legal action on this front, especially in cases with adults."

Another library patron who asked not to be identified says he was blocked from viewing the Web site of Equality Mississippi, an organization that promotes gay and lesbian civil rights. The screen Integrity flashes when a site is blocked said that http://www.equalityms.org had been blocked due to "sex," but there appears to be nothing racier on the site than a Gay TV Guide. Most of the site focuses on property and child custody rights for gays and lesbians.

"The level at which JHLS has set its filters strikes me as unconstitutional," the patron said.

Case says that Allen Israel, who is the recently appointed information technology administrator, has the authority to block or unblock sites on request. She acknowledges that it might take as long as 24 hours for Israel to unblock sites, although McCallum says that might change in the future.

"We're reviewing our policies right now, and it might be possible to empower staff to be able to disable the filtering themselves," she said.

"We're trying to do what's best for all patrons," Case said, "and we just have to ask them to be patient. We know the filter is not perfect. We're in the information business, and it's our intention to get everybody the information they need."

In the meantime, patrons like O'Flaherty remain dissatisfied. "I don't see any purpose for these filters," she said. "It's a direct violation of the ALA (American Library Association) Bill of Rights. Libraries are supposed to provide access to all information, and I can't look at sites about books? They always say they'll unblock the sites, but then they never do. It's very frustrating."

Previous Comments


Thanks Brian for the information on Sheila O'Flaherty. She works in my (our) office and she has puzzled us, and many others, for years. Are you really, really sure she's not.

Ray Carter

haha A year later, I find this.. "sex" on our web site?? lmao


To this day, I greet Sheila with the phrase "Sheila O'Flaherty is not a pervert"! ;o) Cheers, TH

Tom Head


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