Lessons learned, and gearing up to fight pornography in libraries

March 12, 2015

By Lea Z. Singh |

Wonderful Andrea Mrozek informed us that CFRA played a short quote from me on their morning news at around 7:50 am yesterday. I didn't hear it or know about it, as it was a clip from a pre-recorded interview. I'm so happy to hear that they mentioned this story!

Until last week, I would have bet $1000 that our local "very child friendly" public library used a filter to block out pornography from their computers. Now I know better. A whole new and disturbing world has been opened up to me. I have learned that my safe little bubble was only in my head - it hasn't actually existed for decades.

Today, many libraries across Canada and the United States have no pornography filters at all, not even for illegal graphic images of the sexual exploitation, rape and abuse of children.

Read that above sentence again. Crazy, eh? Yes, it really is that bad. Tim Tierney, the Board of the Ottawa Public Library, informed me about this in his letter, which stated:

OPL uses more filters than most libraries in Canada ...(e.g. child pornography for which we filter – other libraries do not).
The Ottawa Public Library is among the lucky few libraries that block out child pornography but allow adults to access everything else (they filter out pornography for children and teens, but adults can choose "unfiltered access" to the Internet). That done, the OPL pat themselves on the back for doing more than the rest.

Why do libraries allow everything? They do this in the name of freedom of access to information, and provincial and national associations of librarians are fiercely committed to this idea (as in the United States). I have even read that librarians who disagree with this policy as shunned.

How to make libraries safe again

As it turns out, this is a huge battle today. Many groups have apparently been fighting libraries (especially in the U.S.) to install or tighten their filters, and success has so far been very limited.

Given that information, I expect that it will be difficult to change the policy at any one particular library, including the Ottawa Public Library. Each single library wants to stay cool with all its "library friends" in other cities, and keep the library associations happy. And the top brass in the library administration are deadlocked in their extreme understanding of freedom of information, and can't be reasoned with.

How about legislation?

Back in 2008, Cambridge MPP Gerry Martiniuk introduced a private members' bill on this topic in the Ontario Provincial Parliament. Well, kind of. This bill was not aimed at eliminating pornography entirely from the public library. It wasn't aimed at adults. But this bill would have required the use of filters to block out child pornography and all other pornography in school libraries, and in public libraries only for those under 18 years old.

Seems like a no-brainer. Who could be against filtering out pornography for children? Surely, no one in their right mind.

Except...your friendly neighbourhood librarians. As it turns out, the Ontario Library Association and the Canadian Library Association fought against the bill, arguing that it "infringes on the intellectual rights of individuals". Here's more:
The Newmarket and Aurora libraries are standing strong with the message sent out by the Ontario and Canadian library associations that it is the duty of public libraries to uphold Canada’s Bill of Rights and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by providing access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity.
This includes material that, in some cases, would be considered unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable by society, according to the released statement.
“The problem is filters can block useful information,” Newmarket Public Library acting CEO Linda Peppiatt said. “If someone searched for information on breast cancer, the filter will pick up the word breast and block the content.”
As reported, the argument of the library associations had three prongs:
(1) Canada's Bill of Rights requires libraries to provide access to pornography.
(2) The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires libraries to provide access to pornography.
(3) Filters would be overbroad because they would block out non-pornography.
Clearly, no matter what strategy is used to fight against pornography in libraries, this will end up spiralling into a legal battle. The library associations are whipping around the Bill of Rights and the Charter in their defence, so even if legislation gets passed, it will end up in the courts.

As for their third prong, which is kind of irrelevant given the first two "biggies", it's obviously not as bad as they made it out to be. Some libraries, like the Ottawa Public Library, currently block out Internet pornography for children and teens, and no one is complaining that they can't do research on breast cancer.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about Bill 128, 2008 is this: On October 30, 2008, MPP Martiniuk issued a press release entitled "Petition calls for Internet filters to block pornographic sites". The petition seems to have been called the "Internet Filters Petition". The news story provides links, but they no longer work.

However, this is still very useful information. It makes me wonder: Did Martiniuk's private members' bill start out as a petition?

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