One civic request

From: Matt Jensen (
Date: Wed Jan 24 2001 - 13:24:26 PST

I've put on the blind carbon copy line people I know, or have corresponded
with about politics. I almost never ask people to donate money or sign
petitions and such, but I want to ask you today to consider a small civic

This is one of those subjects that might cause you to roll your eyes and
dismiss it, as I have done in the past, but let me tell you why I think we
need to pay attention to it this time.

I guess I wrote this because it just hit me today that this is a very
specific, very real way in which our country will be a little bit worse if
we don't speak up soon. Namely, as an adult you will be unable to use a
public library to look up a whole world of political, medical, social, and
cultural topics online, all because of the technical incompetence,
political bias, and arrogance of others who think they know best for all
of us.

In short, I want you to read up a bit on CIPA, the recently-signed,
mandatory internet filtering law for public schools and libraries.
Whether you're Republican, Democrat, or other, I think you'll be offended
at the broad reach of what's happening. Please read the American Library
Association's page on CIPA at Then if you're
bothered by it, please take a small step to change things, such as:

* Contact your Congressman or Senator [(202) 224-3121 ]
  (Online, try or Snail mail is best.)

* Write an online note to the FCC, giving feedback on CIPA.
  ( )

* Contact your local librarian and let them know where you stand.[1]

* Contact the American Library Association, and support their
  lawsuit[2] against CIPA.

If you think this one of those urban myth emails, you're wrong; check out,, or the sources in my endnotes. I've written
some background on what this is all about, below. I'll try to not bother
any of you with requests like this for another year or so. Thank you for
your time :-)

-Matt Jensen


On December 15, 2000, Congress passed a bill, which Clinton signed into
law as CIPA[3], requiring mandatory filtering software on all networked
computers accessible in all public libraries and schools which receive
various federal funds.

This means that if your library wants to continue to receive that federal
funding, it MUST install filters on ALL Web terminals, even those used
only by adults. What's more, the librarians are not allowed to turn off
or bypass the filters for a child, even on a case-by-case basis, if a
parent or teacher asks them to. Only adults doing "bona fide" research
may receive exemptions.

Reasonable people differ about whether and how to shield children from
harmful material. But this law goes beyond that, restricting the rights
of adults to access non-obscene material through their public libraries,
paid for with their tax dollars.

And studies have shown that these filtering programs have a false positive
rate of about 20%, meaning that for every 4 porn or ultraviolence sites
excluded, they also exclude 1 legitimate site[4]. Thousands of legitimate
sites, describing breast cancer, anorexia, AIDS testing, family planning,
and other important issues are excluded by these filters. In part, that's
because the filter companies often have political agendas. But it's
mostly because most of the filtering is done through simplistic word
searches; e.g., if a site contains the word "breast", it is excluded.

Since computers do not understand the meanings and subtleties of metaphor,
ambiguity, irony, and humor, a filtering program can *never* accurately
assess a page. Only human librarians can do that. Only librarians can
enforce community standards for children while recognizing when rules need
to be bent. So instead of a technically-flawed, politically-motivated
national solution imposed on all communities, speak up and let people know
you want libraries to remain free, and to be run by librarians.


[1] Here in Seattle, the main public library is luckier than most, as its
budget is big enough to handle the loss of federal funding, if need be.
(The Gates and Allen families are big patrons, and the city has amassed
one of the largest public library endowments in the country (see  Most libraries,
however, depend on the federal money.

[2] ALA sues to stop CIPA:

[3] Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), viewable at

[4] For many more factoids, see the ALA's Internet Kit at:

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Fri Apr 27 2001 - 23:19:03 PDT