It's 404 Day! Join Us In Protesting Internet Censorship in US Schools and Libraries

By April Glaser

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Today, April 4th is 404 Day. EFF, along with our friends at the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Center for Civic Media at MIT, are using today to call attention to blocked and banned websites in libraries and public schools across the country. Join us this afternoon, at 12pm PDT / 3pm EDT for a digital teach-in with some of the top researchers and librarians working to analyze and push back against the use of Internet filters on library computers.

Internet filters are widely used on public and staff computers in public schools and libraries across the country to block content and websites in order to be in compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law was passed in 2000 and requires that all public libraries and schools that receive federal funds through the E-rate program or the Library Services and Technology Act, install filters to block child pornography and obscene or “harmful to minors” images.

The problem is that library systems that are afraid of breaking the law often implement filters in aggressive ways that block constitutionally protected content from being accessed by students, researchers, and library patrons. Beyond the requirements of CIPA, some libraries have implemented discretionary filtering, and websites have been blocked about Wiccan, Native American spirituality, and astrology, as well as the sites that contain information about LGBTQ communities, youth tobacco usage, art galleries, and Second Amendment advocacy.

As common as they are, not all library systems use Internet filters. This is the case in the San Jose Public Libraries, where one of our panelists today, librarian and blogger Sarah Houghton conducted a study of available filtering technology. It turns not that not only did filters allow for obscene images to still be accessed by library patrons, they also cost more to implement than the funding provided by the federal grants.

To help us understand the contours of the law, Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association will join us. As she discusses in her paper, Filtering and the First Amendment, a school or a library has never been found to be out of compliance with CIPA nor has the FCC, the agency responsible for enforcement, ever established what constitutes effective filtering under the law.

Our third Panelist is Chris Peterson, a researcher at the Center for Civic Media at MIT who is working on the Mapping Information Access Project, a critically important investigation into how schools and libraries implement filters. They aim to develop a comprehensive record of what library systems filter, how they decide what gets filtered, the kinds of technology used, and how libraries and schools process challenges to blocked content. Research like this will help us to understand where and how filters are being used to block constitutionally protected content.

When you’re using a computer in a public library or school and you encounter a banned website or blocked information we highly recommend using Herdict, a project by the folks at Harvard’s Berkman Center that allow users to log web blockages, censorship, and filtering as it happens. Users that are concerned about Internet censorship shouldn’t simply visit another site when they are denied access to parts of the Internet; they should report it. This data will help researchers and advocates know what’s happening and where. Visit the website and type in which site you were prohibited from accessing. Herdict will log that information in its database of blocked and filtered websites around the world.

We’ve invited bloggers and librarians from across the Internet to write about censorship in libraries for 404 Day. Read what they have to say and join us at 12pm PDT / 3pm EDT for our digital teach-in about banned websites in libraries. We’re recording the event, so if can’t you tune in live, visit back later to see the video.

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