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Engaging Privacy and Information Technology in a Digital Age
the other means of information access that have traditionally been offered by libraries. The most obvious of these is that unlike the physical holdings of a library, which are chosen by the library staff after being vetted by publishers, the offerings on the Internet are not required to be selected by either a librarian or a publisher. Anyone can publish on the World Wide Web with little or no expense. This means that while there are great amounts of information on the Web, there is also a great amount of misinformation on the Web. Along with expanded access to information of great educational value, the Web offers access to sites that contain racist, sexist, and homophobic diatribes, as well as sexually explicit material.
Access to the Internet is also different from the traditional access to information offered by libraries, because the Internet is a two-way mechanism for communication. This means that not only can patrons of a library use the Internet to access information, but they also can use that access to send communications of their own. In providing patrons with Internet access, libraries are also providing patrons with a communication mechanism that is generally difficult to trace.
The American Library Association has developed a toolkit to help individual libraries develop policies designed to address both of these aspects of Internet use.10 This toolkit acknowledges that there is content on the Internet that is both inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal, but also emphasizes the importance of ensuring patron privacy, allowing patrons free use of the tools that enable access to information, and ensuring that the dignity and autonomy of individual patrons is not compromised.
In general, the library community rejects the notion that librarians should act as guardians or gatekeepers of their patrons’ access to the Internet. In the case of patrons who are children, the American Library Association’s policy toolkit makes explicit that the primary responsibility for enforcing restrictions on Internet access for children rests with the parents of those children, not with the librarians.11
The Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2002 (P.L. 1060-554) sought to change this approach by conditioning eligibility for certain federal funding on a library’s willingness to block all patrons’ access to sexually explicit material deemed harmful to minors. The American Library Association (ALA) challenged this law, and in 2002 a three-judge panel in the federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania overturned the law, ruling that it violated the First Amendment rights of library patrons. However, the federal government appealed this decision, and in 2003 the