While I was working at a public library in West Virginia I noticed a few things about our public Internet computers. Yes, they were slow. They also came with protective filters meant to filter out viruses and spyware. As librarian I had passwords that could lower the security system called Fortress, but many times the secret override password had been changed and librarians were not notified. I also noticed (sometimes) that when a patron could not access a site it was because it was super unsafe and dangerous, a plus on the Fortress side. But there were times when the Fortress software did not allow access to services that patrons really needed. One time it happened with a patron who needed to access her university website-- there was just no way to access the necessary site due to the protective software. My goal as library director was to serve all of my patrons and to not be able to help this one patron felt wrong.
What Is E-Rate?
Because our library is a public and a school library, another librarian friend warned me, "If kids come into the library and use the computers, you have to monitor to make sure they are not using FaceBook." Really? This one really confused me because it was an aspect of librarianship I was not familiar with...am I the Internet Police at my library? Is that part of my responsibility? This librarian's comment was meant in relation to E-rate, the federally funded program that discounts the cost of Internet for schools and libraries. E-Rate is the nickname for the Schools and Library Program of the Universal Service fund, which in turn, is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Stacked within layers of bureaucracy, YES, it is all a little confusing and senses-taking, so please bear with me, this is important library stuff worth knowing about.
E-Rate in West Virginia
In West Virginia, E-Rate gives back almost $13 million in 2015. I can confirm that as part of the E-Rate program, our library's telephone bill was reimbursed every six months and this saved us about $600 per year. We had no Internet fee because the service was paid for by the West Virginia Library Commission (WVLC). I can see that the WVLC was reimbursed a little over $16,000 for Internet access which is 65% of the full cost. I'm including the data below from the Universalservice.org site: (Click on the image below to make it appear larger.)
What is CIPA?
The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was passed by the United States Congress to help keep kids safe online. This leglislation says that any entity that receives E-Rate funding has to comply with CIPA by having certain filters in place online to protect children from seeing obscene images and/or harmful content. (Read more about CIPA here.) My favorite takeaway from CIPA is this: "CIPA does not require the tracking of Internet use by minors or adults." So, because the WVLC has filters in place librarians are not responsible for monitoring what minors are looking at online. *phew* That is a relief, because I feel like kids have rights, too, and no one likes someone looking over their shoulder while they are browsing online.
What is Tor?
I recently saw this news story from the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and I thought, "This is important." Kilton Library looks to be a progressive and forward-thinking library with a wonderful green design and well-lit interior. Earlier this summer, Kilton Library became the first public library in the United States to become part of the Tor Network, an anonymous Internet browser. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was not so happy about this and contacted the library by email. Eventually, the DHS, the local police, and Kilton city officials all had to have a long meeting to talk things over and Tor was shut down. Now, the community is being polled to see if they will support the Tor Browser and the Tor Network at the public library. Stay tuned.
So what is Tor? Why is To important? The Tor browser on library computers allows patrons to use the web anonymously. What does that mean? The Tor browser routes information in a circuitous fashion, almost like a high-speed chase, in order to not be easy to trace or follow. Currently, most browsers store your data and information. Google knows where you have been and it does not consider your email private. Does that feel a little bit like Big Brother is watching you? Some people don't mind being served up ads based on private communications, but others find this deeply manipulative and materialistic. The Tor browser has no ads and it is not selling you anything. While some might associate criminal activity with anonymous web use, there are many legal and legitimate uses for the Tor browser by an eclectic group of users that include law enforcement officials, military, and journalists.
Support Library Freedom
I, personally, am all in favor of anonymous Internet browsing in the public library (can you tell?), but I also want to give the point of view of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS does not like Tor because it associates the anonymity with criminal activity, and DHS has really focused on child pornography over the past decade. But Tor is not impervious to law enforcement. In March 2014, DHS took down a major child pornography ring that used the Tor network. While there is potential for illegal activity on Tor, this potential exists in every nook and cranny of the Internet. I might argue that the benefits of Tor far outweigh the liabilities. The Library Freedom Project is behind Tor at the Kilton Library in New Hampshire.
The American Library Association supports intellectual freedom and unfiltered and unfettered Internet use is part of that freedom. The OpenNet Initiative and the Library Freedom Project are working to preserve these rights. Libraries and librarians are not law enforcement officers, nor Internet nannies. I encourage all librarians and information professionals to talk about these issues with your board members so that they can have the information they need to make decisions about filtering the Internet in libraries. Privacy in the library is important to everyone.
Update: 9/27/15 - On September 16, Kilton Public Library of New Hampshire voted to continue being part of the Tor network. Score one for privacy online and in the library.