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Social Networking and Internet Policies in Public Libraries

Charity Neave

LIS 666: Information Ethics and Policy

Spring 2007

 

There has been increased concern on the part of parents and the general public concerning young adults and social networking sites, such as MySpace, Bebo, and Friendster.  As a result of media programs, such as the well publicized NBC program, To Catch a Predator, the public has become more aware of problems related to teens and the Internet. The primary problem is that these sites present privacy issues and that they could expose young adults to dangerous situations; some parents and legislators have called for action.  Many challenge the validity or usefulness of such sites in light of these possible dangers and call for the abolishment of such sites in our schools and libraries.  However, such a position circumvents the heart of the problem and denies a true solution. The solution should instead focus on parents, those responsible for the development of children, and predators, those seeking to cause children harm.

            The problem becomes a conflicting one for librarians – to weigh the safety of patrons against their right to access information.  This is also a possible liability issue which must be addressed before it arises.  Librarians must consider the interests of stakeholders; available factual information; available informational, constitutional, and legal policy; and related established policies in order to determine a stance on this complex issue.  In developing policies and solutions for this problem, libraries must also consider several solutions and weigh these solutions considering the above.  The following is my proposed action and supporting arguments based on these factors.

 

            Stakeholders in this debate include library users, young adult users, their parents, librarians, library policy makers (be that a board of trustees, local government, and/or librarians), and the general public, both users and non-users.  Library users seek free and equitable access to information.  Young adults want the same rights as the adult library users, and in most libraries, are afforded this right.  Parents of young library users seek protected access to information in the interest of ensuring the safety of their children.  Many parents see it as the library’s responsibility to monitor the actions and flow of information to their children or at least view the library as a safe place free from the dangers of the larger world.  Librarians are charged with enforcing policies designed to ensure the access of information but are also responsible for the safety of patrons within the confines of the library.  Library decision makers are responsible for protecting the rights of the users, but they also must secure the library’s ability to provide access to materials and information.

            These varied interests must be balanced in order to develop a fair, informed, and realistic solution.  While safety should not be undermined, it is in the interest of the patrons and the library to keep the channels of communication open to all.  Social networking sites provide more than a place to meet up with friends on the Internet.  Many educational institutions are developing a space within these sites to promote communication of ideas, education, and a means of reaching young adults in a manner in which they can feel comfortable, a manner that they help to create.  To deny young adults access to such sites would deny access to some of what NASA, the Discovery Channel, reading groups, schools, libraries, and organizations have to offer.  Additionally, these sites have developed a common means of communication, which is lost to young adults excluded by prohibited access within public libraries.  As the “MySpace” generation enters college and the workforce, this exclusion becomes another disadvantage and contributor to the “digital divide.” 

            The position of the parents is understandable, though it is based in fear of safety and of the unknown.  However, by reacting to this fear by prohibiting such sites, they are eliminating, in some respects, the opportunity for growth of their children.  A child who is overly protected from harm is not equipped to deal with situations that arise when they are grown.  The best solution, rather, is educated and tempered guidance through the sometimes dangerous waters of the Internet. 

            The library should consider available information regarding this matter.  One source is the body of policies already in place by other institutions.  Some examples can be seen in policies from the Greensboro Public Library (Greensboro, NC), Eckhart Public Library (Auburn, IN), and West Lincoln Public Library (Ontario, Canada).  These policies vary in length and specificity, but all three discuss appropriate use of the Internet, the responsibility of the user, and the responsibility of the parent/guardian to assess  Internet safety.  Two of the three, Eckhart and West Lincoln, also place emphasis on the importance of providing access to information as well as the nature of information found on the Internet.  The library should consider policies from libraries which have adopted various solutions as well, such as the High Point Public Library, which has chosen to eliminate “chatting” altogether, including but not limited to social networking sites.[1] It is important to note that most libraries currently consider people ages 14 and up as adults with adult borrowing and computer use privileges.  Additionally, few networking sites allow anyone under this age to join.  Therefore, any decision affecting young adults would more than likely also affect other privileges. 

             It would be useful to have a statistical report concerning the use of social networking sites and teens to fully understand the impact of these sites among this age group.  However, despite the wealth of scholarly information regarding children and the Internet, no formal study of this type has yet been implemented.  There are, however, books and articles related to the issue, including MySpace Unraveled: What it is and How to Use it Safely by Larry Magid andAnne Collier, which are based on informal surveys and data and provide some useful insight.

            The library should also consider professional literature and publications concerning the issue.  The American Library Association (ALA) has a wealth of information available to librarians concerning filters, children and the Internet, and social networking.  They have published a wealth of statements related to Intellectual Freedom, children and the Internet, and most recently the Internet and social networking sites.  This information, in conjunction with the Code of Ethics, reiterates the primary goal of providing free and equitable access to information.  Generally speaking, the stance the ALA takes is that of access with education for and by parents as the primary means of curbing possible danger.  

            Recently, the government passed a bill that would require federally funded libraries and schools to have more stringent filters and monitors for children on the Internet.  Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, and Wikipedia are restricted by the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) passed in July 2006.  The reaction to this has been strong and focuses on education over prohibition.  The ALA stated, “Under DOPA, people who use the library and school computers as their primary conduits to the Internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the Web’s most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications…DOPA is redundant and unnecessary legislation…the best way to protect our kids from harm is by teaching them to make wise choices online.”[2] 

            However, this is an issue which has no clear legal precedent.  It is related to filtering, another Internet security issue libraries have been grappling with over the last decade.  Rulings concerning filtering could be used to strengthen one’s argument, but unfortunately, suits have been filed for and against filtering, and rulings have gone both ways.  A suit was filed against the North Regional Library District in November 2006 regarding their decision to filter specific sites.  Interestingly, the library was being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and various Second Amendment activists.[3]There are also cases involving families of abducted and assaulted children and MySpace.  In response, MySpace has supported the passing of a bill proposed in the last year, which takes an active approach in attempting to restrict and monitor access for sex offenders by requiring them to register their e-mail addresses with MySpace. 

            One solution has been to restrict or ban use of these particular sites within the library altogether, in the interest of maintaining safety and eliminating liability.  Restrictions cannot be limited to particular sites as this would immediately open the policy to legal challenge by the host company or organization.  Additionally, such restriction constitutes restriction of access and a clear violation of our professional mandate to provide equitable access, as discussed above. Such restriction is also harmful in that it requires the library to make decisions based on value or quality of content leading to the murky area of censorship. 

            Restriction of a type of interaction, such as games and chatting, would be an acceptable response, in the same way that many libraries restrict the amount of time available for users.  On one hand, the “No Chat” rule appears viable in that it still allows for use of the site while eliminating the most dangerous aspect.  On the other hand, this would not eliminate all of the perceived problems with social networking sites, namely that of privacy, and thus would not offer a truly effective solution.  Additionally, for many public libraries this is not an option as it still constitutes restriction of use similar to filtering.

            Requiring sex offenders to register with the library and monitoring of their use would also be a blatant disregard for our professional mandate to respect and protect the privacy of our patrons.  Additionally, this puts librarians in the precarious position of becoming law enforcers rather than information providers.

            It is the library’s mission to provide free and equal access to information.  Prohibiting use of specific Internet sites by members of our community would inhibit such access.  While we are concerned for the safety of all of our patrons, we cannot be responsible for the vastness of material found on the Internet.  It is my belief that the library should adopt a clear policy on this issue to protect users’ rights and to protect the library’s ability to continue in the event of challenge.  This policy should speak to the following:  the right to access information, the acceptable use of the Internet, the responsibility of the library in monitoring such usage, and parents’ responsibility to monitor usage of the Internet.  This policy should be made available for patrons when using the computers, for the general public, and for parents when registering their children.  Furthermore, it is my belief that the library should be educated and, in turn, educate the public about Internet safety, through discussion, making materials available, and workshops.



[1] Full policies are available on their websites: Greensboro Public Library http://www.greensboro-nc.gov/Departments/Library/about/policy.htm#Internet, Eckhart Public Library http://www.youseemore.com/eckhart/about.asp?p=29, West Lincoln Public Library (Ontario, Canada) http://westlincolnlibrary.tripod.com/index.htm, and High Point Public Library www.hipopl.org

 

[2] Retrieved from www.ala.org, March 25, 2007.

[3] See Tom Henderson’s, If Access is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Access.  Lewiston Morning Tribune, November 20, 2006. 

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Charity Neave Johnson,
Mar 18, 2010, 11:25 AM
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