May 26, 2024

A Modest Proposal

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can condition Federal funding for libraries on the libraries’ use of censorware (i.e., that a law called CIPA is consistent with the constitution), it’s time to take a serious look at the deficiencies of censorware, and what can be done about them.

Suppose you’re a librarian who wants to comply with CIPA, but otherwise you want your patrons to have access to as much material on the Net as possible. From your standpoint, the popular censorware products have four problems. (1) They block some unobjectionable material. (2) They fail to block some material that is obscene or harmful to minors. (3) They try to block material that Congress does not require to be blocked, such as certain political speech. (4) They don’t let you find out what they block.

(1) and (2) are just facts of life – no technology can eliminate these problems. But (3) and (4) are solvable – it’s possible to build a censorware program that doesn’t try to block anything except as required by the law, and it’s possible for a program’s vendor to reveal what their product blocks. But of course it’s unlikely that the main censorware vendors will give you (3) or (4).

So why doesn’t somebody create an open-source censoreware program that is minimally compliant with CIPA? This would give librarians a better option, and it would put pressure on the existing vendors to narrow their blocking lists and to say what they block.

I can understand why people would have been hesitant to create such a program in the past. Most people who want to minimize the intrusiveness of censorware have thus far done so by not using censorware; so there hasn’t been much of a market for a narrowly tailored product. But that may change as librarians are forced to use censorware.

Also, censorware opponents have found the lameness and overbreadth of existing censorware useful, especially in court. But now, in libraries at least, that usefulness is mostly past, and it’s time to figure out how to cope with CIPA in the least harmful way. More librarian-friendly censorware seems like a good start.

[Note: I must admit that I’m not entirely convinced by my own argument here. But I do think it has some merit and deserves discussion, and nobody else seemed to be saying it. So let the flaming begin!]


  1. A most excellent idea

    Aaron’s Censorware. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.Ed Felten half-seriously suggests that we create censorware that doesn’t overblock and has an open list, so that US libraries who want to receive federal funding can do so without unduly harming…

  2. Gentle censorware

    In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision requiring libraries to install censoring software on their computers, Ed Felton suggests someone make a customizable, open-source web filter that only blocks…

  3. Aaron’s Censorware

    Ed Felten half-seriously suggests that we create censorware that doesn’t overblock and has an open list, so that US libraries…