557 Current trends paper #2

Current Trends Essay 2 – Filtering, Selecting and Censoring Online Information

June 16, 2013

             The ethical issue of filtering/censoring access to online information will be crucial to information professionals for some time to come.  In this essay, I briefly define the “micro” elements of the ethical question at issue, tracing the history of the cause of censorship as well as the development of ALA institutional responses to it.  I address a few of the “macro” determinants, focusing on the First Amendment and two possible legal derivations, and I conclude with future prospects based on historic antecedents and potential technological developments.

Wars raise public awareness and create the tendency among some in society to attempt to restrict information that might otherwise have not been restricted, under the guise of national defense.  Laughlin (2003, p. 226) reported that World War 1 saw a rise in concerns about and calls for censorship at libraries, but that it was also the World War 1 that saw the first attempt by librarians to cite the First Amendment in an effort to protect their collections and patrons.  (Just as an aside, the terrorist attacks of 2001 that resulted in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unleashed a torrent of censorship efforts embodied in the Patriot Act.)  The librarian at Princeton wrote:

“The fundamental right and absolute need of democracy is the right to know all that can be said for or against any question. There is no right, and rightly no right, of which we are so sensitive as this right of knowing both sides an d of the right to know the truth. . . . This was no matter of theory with the founders of America or the framers of the constitution. In America the people are sovereign. They have a right to know, and information cannot be withheld from them which would be kept of subjects [under a monarchy]. (Laughlin, 2003, from Geller, 1984, p. 226)

           Let’s first establish the direct link between books and online information.  OK, done.  Now let’s look at the link between filtering (selection) and censoring in books and documents.  From the Asheim article (Asheim, 1953) we know that a librarian selects books for a collection based on space, cost, and standards (Asheim, p 64).  Standards can consist of the author’s intent, literary excellence, literary standing, the presumed effect on the reader, and customs of the community (Asheim, p. 65).  The difference between selection and censoring, according to Asheim, is the positivity and inclusion of the selector, versus the censor’s negativity and bias to exclusion (Asheim, p. 66).  The selector looks for reasons to include a book, the censor looks for reasons to reject it.  The selector says if there is anything good about a book, keep it, while the censor says if there is anything bad in the book, reject it.  The censor judges books by external characteristics; the selector looks at internal values.  Ultimately, selection is democratic, while censorship is authoritarian (Asheim, p. 67).

Rubin (Rubin, 2010) cites fundamental reasons for censoring material, such as sexual content, violent content, offensive language, and concern for children (Rubin, pp. 381-3).  These concerns are obvious, and of course transfer over to on-line material.  But most of these concerns can be mitigated at minimal expense and with minimal intrusion.  Rubin also cites the foundational efforts of the American Library Association (ALA) to enable librarians to protect the rights of citizens, rights to privacy, rights to protection against government-ordained censorship, rights to free access to information and ultimately, to free speech as enshrined in the Constitution, through the Library Bill of Rights adopted in 1948, the Freedom To Read Statement adopted in 1953, the Intellectual Freedom Statement, and the Freedom to View Statement adopted in 1979, all reinforcements to the First Amendment clause guaranteeing free speech (Rubin, pp. 389-92).

And what of the First Amendment?  I heard on WAMU’s The Diane Rehm Show (Rehm, 2013) just today that the founding fathers were ready to approve the new Constitution without a Bill of Rights, but that then Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson refused to join consensus without it, insisting that the people required protection against their government.  But is the government the only entity the people need protection against?  Tim Wu, in a collection of essays, “Constitution 3.0 (Rosen and Wittes, 2011),” highlights two separate trends or traditions of free speech that might inform our discussion (Rosen and Wittes, pp. 84-87).  The central free speech narrative, also known as the first free speech tradition, focuses on the free speech rights of the individual.  The second tradition focuses on the exercise of free speech by “concentrated, private intermediaries who control or carry speech” (Rosen and Wittes, p. 85).  In the second tradition, private intermediaries, not the government, may act as censors, particularly of on-line material.  Rosen notes, in a chapter aptly entitled, “The Deciders: Facebook, Google, and the Future of The Privacy and Free Speech,” that,

“… the person who arguably had more power than any other to determine who may speak and who may be heard around the globe is not a king, a president, or a Supreme Court justice.  She was Nicole Wong, the deputy general counsel of Google.   …it was Wong who decided what controversial user-generated content went down or stayed up on YouTube and other applications owned by Google, including Blogger, Picasa, and Orkut.  Wong and her colleagues also oversee Google’s search engine…”   (Rosen and Wittes, pp. 78-79).

            Future librarians and information professionals will continue to have to deal with Government efforts as we move further away from 2001 and as public calls increase to reduce the onerous over-reach of elements of the Patriot Act.  Additionally, they (we) will have to consider the potential invasion of privacy and effects of information filtering by large scale providers of on-line information like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and Facebook, among others.  Today’s news flash, “Google builds new system to eradicate child porn images from the web (Barrett, 2013),” sounds wonderful on the surface but may bode ill for the future of internet control and freedom.


Asheim, L.  (1953). Not Censorship But Selection.  Wilson Library Bulletin (R) 28 S 1953.    Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/basics/notcensorship.cfm

Barrett, D. (2013, June 15).  Google builds new system to eradicate child porn images from the web.  The U.K. Telegraph.  Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/10122452/Google-builds-new-system-to-eradicate-child-porn-images-from-the-web.html

Laughlin, G.K. (2003). Sex, Lies, and Library Cards: The First Amendment Implications of the Use of Software Filters to Control Access to Internet Pornography in Public Libraries.  Drake Law Review.  Vol. 51.  Retrieved from http://students.law.drake.edu/lawReview/docs/51-Laughlin.pdf

Rehm, D.  (2013, June 16).  The Diane Rehm Show [Radio Broadcast].  Washington, DC: NPR.

Rosen, J. and B. Wittes. (2011). Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change.  Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Rubin, R.  (2010). Foundations of Library and Information Science.  New York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers.