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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Libraries must move swiftly to deal with Internet porn issue

First published: December 16, 2004

As Cobourg’s library board gathers tonight for its scheduled meeting (Wed. Dec. 15), members will discuss a complaint by a Cobourg mother, who was upset when her 12-year old son was exposed to graphic pornography being viewed by a 50-year old man beside them. After she notified library staff, CEO Donna Bright is reported to have approached him, as he continued to view other porn. The situation was resolve by putting up a screen. This has brought both Cobourg and Port Hope’s Internet use policies into the spotlight.
The library’s policy around this type of use for the Internet is based on the Canadian Library Association’s principles, which are aimed at protecting intellectual freedom. The principles of intellectual freedom, the notion that we can be exposed to a wide range of ideas that we may or may not agree with, could sound silly in a case like this. But don’t forget history. People like Copernicus and Galileo were persecuted for their ideas, things we now know to be truths. It is a huge leap to equate this with viewing porn. However, libraries hold this to be an extremely important idea and we should support them.

But there are some really important values that must also be protected from a community’s perspective, too. Children must be safeguarded against viewing offensive material. Women and minorities should also feel they can use the Internet without being offended by sexist or racist material. And someway must be found to protect those who do not wish to be exposed inadvertently.

Public Internet access is an extremely central principle, since it bridges a significant digital and information divide in our society. While many people have computers and Internet access, not everyone can afford it. By providing libraries with Internet access everyone can get online and use the incredible resources for research and learning. The Canadian Library Association recognizes this in its Net Safe; Net Smart report, explaining the issues.

Unlike books, videos, DVDs and other materials in a library, the Internet does not go through the rigorous selection process normally used. Libraries face a two-edge sword in providing Internet access. On one side, it must abide by the criminal code dealing with obscenity and child pornography. Yet, it must also act within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, protecting the freedom of expression within reasonable limits.

In this case, Port Hope chief librarian Barbra Stephenson has it right. When children are able to access computers, then the library must take all precautions to ensure the Internet terminals are used for research and educational purposes. And while the children’s section already has restricted use, this must be applied to all computers, since older children use them, as well.

Filtering software should be installed, with an option to turn it off by request from those doing legitimate research. The development of restrictive guidelines must be put in place. Both libraries should post signs making it clear that viewing obscene or offensive materials will not be tolerated. If the library boards wish to go one step beyond this, they may choose of offer a computer away from the others, out of public view, that could be used for research purposes, as well. Staff should have protocols defining legitimate research activity, rather than those seeking to view porn or offensive sexist or racist web sites for other purposes. The fact that people will need to ask will stop many of those without valid needs.

Certainly, there will be those libertarians who will argue these kinds of actions limit their right to access all types of information. But let us remember, these terminals are paid for by tax dollars and the generous donations of people in the community. It is incumbent that the library boards honour the “public” nature of these services, unlike a private computer, where individuals can surf the web and make their own choices. There is a greater responsibility to the community over those rights of the individuals who wish to view this kind of material.

There will also be those who wish to express their moral outrage against porn and offensive materials that can be widely found on the Internet. This is often an argument paraded by those who know little or nothing about the resources that can be found. Yes, there is a lot of this kind of material, but there is a growing wealth of information that covers a vast amount of knowledge. This cannot be ignored. And it is a powerful learning resource. So while some may wish to be highly restrictive and clamp down heavily on Internet usage, this approach must also be viewed with caution.

The library boards must act immediately to shore up any existing holes in their policies. If there is any delay, the respective councils should move swiftly to ensure changes are made so the public feels safe when using these important resources and arrest any public fears. Library patrons should be informed.

But it is not just the politicians and library board who need to act responsibly. Parents are the best Internet filters. Children should never be left to surf the Internet alone. Also, adults who use the public access computers in the library should act appropriately. There is no need to view these kinds of sites in a library. Find somewhere else, for crying out loud.

Let us see some quick action by all library boards in Northumberland County by revisiting existing policies and then acting appropriately to ensure libraries continue to be valuable resources in our community accessible and safe for all.

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