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Filtering: The Low-Down Truth

Since CIPA was upheld, I’ve been asked to write and present about filtering, to help libraries make choices. Finally, after a lot of thought, I’ve turned down all these requests, and it’s because I have to be true to myself, and continue speaking the truth as I know it. My best advice hasn’t changed in seven years. Filters are bad news.

I’ve had a fairly consistent message (or so I thought) about the weaknesses and limitations of filtering software. I sympathize with managers forced between a rock and a hard spot, and in the past I have provided as much advice as possible to help people who needed to evaluate filtering software.

But what I’m not going to do is put myself in the position–even implied–of endorsing the concept that filtering is a good thing. It’s not. I grappled hands-on with the software for years in order to be able to develop this mile-high view, and nothing has budged me from this conclusion, because it’s so fundamental to how filters work. Internet content filters block access to Constitutionally protected speech, and do so in a way that removes accountability from the vendor and control from the buyer. This is a Bad Thing.

I’m not a knee-jerk absolutist on access issues (and as I stated in American Libraries not too long ago, absolutism killed us in the courts). If you’re four years old, I don’t care if your speech is blocked (and if your parents don’t want to make that decision, I’ll be only to happy to make it for them in a manner that is friendliest to adult library access). If you’re forty, I care a lot. If you’re fourteen, I care, but I understand that adolescence is a legal and cultural battleground.

But I’m also not Dr. Strangelove. I’m never going to love the bomb. You go ahead, if you need to. Bring in the “experts” to tell you how to “select” filters, prop a couple of vendors on the dais, and make your decisions. It’s a tough world, and money is useful. I have said from Day 1 that managers should always be given enough rope to hang themselves with.

I’ll keep on with my message, and I won’t dilute it or confuse it by appearing to help anyone “choose” a filter. Internet content filters block access to Constitutionally protected speech. Filters are bad news. That’s why we fought CIPA and COPA. We lost, but we were still right.

Decades from now, we’ll look back at our primitive, panicked decisions, and wonder what all the fuss was about. But if you are waiting for me to love the bomb, pack a lunch and bring a blanket, because you’re going to have to wait until Hell freezes over.

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