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Illinois Internet Screening in Public Libraries Act Meets with Opposition

Illinois Internet Screening in Public Libraries Act Meets with Opposition.

The Library NEWS | At Illinois’s 99th General Assembly on February 29, State Representative Peter Breen (R-District 48) introduced House Bill 2689, which would create the Internet Screening in Public Libraries Act (ISPLA). The act provides that every public library in the state of Illinois must have a “technology protection measure,” such as filtering software, in place on all public computers “to prevent the display on a public computer of any visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” The library may disable the technology on request for an adult engaged in legitimate research. ISPLA contains no definition of “legitimate research.”

If ISPLA passes, Illinois will become the first state to mandate filters on all public library computers, including those chiefly used by adults, with the potential to fine noncompliant libraries; the bill would also amend the State Finance Act to create the Internet Screening in Public Libraries Fund for this purpose. Currently, all states with filtering regulations allow libraries the option of using filtering software or instituting appropriate use policies, or limiting the filtering requirements to computers available for use by children.

The bill is one of six that Breen introduced in his first term as state legislator. On his website, he stated “I’ve heard from many moms over the years that adult men are regularly viewing hard-core pornography on public library computers, in full view of children and others. This is an abuse of taxpayer resources…. No child should have to walk past obscene and abusive material in order to take advantage of the educational opportunities available at their public library.” (As of press time, Breen had not yet responded to LJ‘s request for comment.)

Both the American Library Association (ALA) and the Illinois Library Association (ILA) oppose the bill as a potential First Amendment violation and an infringement of libraries’ right to regulate their own information policies, as well as an unfunded mandate; Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, explained to LJ that ISPLA “doesn’t make funds available to purchase filters or support the library’s administration of filters, which can take staff time and money too.”

More important, she explained, “Mandating this one-size-fits-all solution, especially technology that has a dubious record of success and has been demonstrated to impact education and access to information, is not really the best solution. We really believe that each library should be left to decide for itself what should be done, and the law takes away that ability.”

Legislature mandating filtering controls in libraries was originally introduced at the 91st Illinois General Assembly in 1999 as HB 1812, a bipartisan measure). It has been reintroduced on a regular basis every year, but has never been enacted as law. “ILA has successfully defeated this legislation eighteen times,” ILA executive director Robert Doyle told LJ. “We hope that we will be able to defeat it again for the nineteenth time.”

ISPLA has been applauded, however, by advocates such as David Smith, of the Illinois Family Institute, a Christian website, who wrote, “This legislation is another step in the ongoing battle to protect children from illegal pornography and Internet predators. The current policy of allowing libraries the choice to offer this material to their patrons not only violates the federal obscenity law but also endangers our children and the community.”

On his site Sexual Harassment of Librarians, Dan Kleinman offers the claim that Breen “designed the bill to, among other things, protect librarians from being sexually harassed and having to work in a hostile work environment that is the direct result of library patrons viewing unfiltered pornography including child pornography.”


This legislation bears a close resemblance to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), enacted by Congress in 2000 to require libraries receiving E-Rate subsidies to provide filtering to prevent minors from accessing obscene or harmful content. When ALA filed a lawsuit to overturn CIPA, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional in 2002.

But in a subsequent 2003 appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the court ruled 6–3 in favor of the law. This decision rested heavily on individual librarians’ willingness to disable the filtering software on an adult user’s request.

CIPA, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), places the burden of compliance on libraries that accept federal funds—libraries that often serve poor or rural communities where patrons may not have Internet access at home, and who presumably most need full access to Internet resources. An ALA policy brief issued in June 2014, Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later, concluded that public libraries using CIPA-compliant filtering software routinely over-blocked material that did not meet any obscenity standards, including websites that dealt with topics such as war, genocide, safer sex, and public health.


Internet filters were originally developed as tools for businesses, and the category-based algorithms used by the software’s vendors still reflect that emphasis. As library technology consultant Lori Ayre pointed out to LJ, “There is no such category as ‘harmful to minors’ or ‘obscenity’ or ‘child pornography.’” Filters, she said, are also easily manipulated to reflect a corporate agenda, such as blocking sites that reference reproductive issues. “They were designed for people who wanted to keep that sort of thing out of their employees’ hands,” explained Ayre. “So they can be implemented in fairly frightening ways.”

While there are open source products that filter via a list of human-identified URLs, or community-moderated systems such as OpenDNS, most commercially available software is proprietary and uses a combination of keyword and URL blocking. The available systems are all fallible, however, often over- or under-blocking content. The presence of nudity, for instance, often prevents access to fine arts sites, and LGBT-positive material can be classified as “alternative lifestyle” and blocked. If an allowable site shares an IP address with a blocked site, it may end up blocked as well.

“I know of at least one library system in Illinois that dropped their filtering scheme because the high school students couldn’t get on their homework platform from the public library computers,” Caldwell-Stone related. “The technology doesn’t work as advertised, and there are equally good or better solutions to the issue they’re trying to address. Libraries have implemented them with great success.” These include strong and enforceable acceptable use policies and physical arrangements, such as privacy screens.

Libraries can contribute to a “white list” of allowable sites, but the steps involved may be beyond what many administrators have time for. Ayre explained that the procedure is contingent on: “a) if someone gets filtered, b) they know they were filtered, c) they know that’s a legitimate site and [are able to] go up to a librarian and say, ‘I want to get to this site,’ and d) [the library has] a filter that allows a white list.” She didn’t know of any librarians who routinely checked their logs to see whether the URLs getting blocked complied with their targets, adding, “It’s really up to the patron to have that information and the wherewithal to do something about it.”

Putting the burden on the patron to request that a site be unblocked comes with its own pitfalls. Adults who wish to view content dealing with mental or physical health, legal matters, or other personal issues may not be inclined to approach a librarian requesting access. In a guest post on the blog In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Audrey Barbakoff, librarian at the Milwaukee Public Library, weighed in on the subject with a question of her own: “Think the rape victim who can’t access the rape and incest hotline number (true story) will ask the librarian to come turn off the filter? Will she file a formal complaint? Probably not, and neither will a hundred other people looking for information on sexuality, health, gun rights, domestic violence.”

According to the librarians and advocates LJ spoke with, the issue with ISPLA is not whether illegal content should be blocked. Rather, the concern is that internet filtering software is not adequate to the task, and should not be mandated at the expense of other solutions. “The commitment is to provide full access to information,” said Caldwell-Stone.” We know that filters don’t really look to what the law says is constitutionally protected information.” Added Ayre, “Unfortunately, the people who want to stop the flow of information are going to cry louder than the people who might need that information.”

The bill was assigned to the Judiciary–Civil Committee on March 2. While ILA’s Doyle is hopeful that it will be defeated, he added, “Even if we win, I don’t think it will be over, based on this [legislation’s] track record.”


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