Youth, Sex and the Law - Content Regulation in US Publicly Funded Libraries


The focus of the EROTICS research in the United States is the access and restriction to information about sexuality. We conducted a study in libraries across the US to try to answer our questions about the effects of mandated filters on access to information in the name of preventing young people from accessing “harmful content.” Our goal was to see what material was being filtered, which technologies were in use and what decision-making processes were at work.

While we are concerned about access to information using the internet, the issues of access to information, particularly sexual information, and how information is restricted pre-date the internet. Information about sexual matters has a history of restriction in the US, including Victorian-era censorship of information about birth control sent through the mail, 20th-century decisions about who could use the birth control pill, and now, discussions about sex education for school-age children and adolescents.

Internet use has become routine for Americans, but many people do not own computers and use them at schools and in public libraries. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) mandates the implementation of strategies and techniques such as filtering software to restrict internet content at public internet access locations, which includes schools and libraries that receive government funding in the United States. CIPA is the product of a lengthy process to control “acceptable” content on the internet, ostensibly motivated by concern for the wellbeing of minors.

These restrictions are linked to the previous examples of restricted information about birth control because both have been promoted by social conservatives with a specific moral agenda. History appears to be repeating itself as information about sexuality and school-based sex education - which includes those received by adolescents - is limited to “abstinence-only” education. The same actors have advocated for these limits on internet-based information in federally funded institutions.

Research has shown that abstinence-only education hashad no effect in delaying sexual activity among teenagers and may in fact contribute to sexually transmitted infections as students enrolled in such programs fail to use a condom at first sexual intercourse.1 Judith Levine points out that “protecting” adolescents and classifying information about sexuality as “harmful to minors” is detrimental since it promotes misinformation, politicises phenomena that are inherent in human development and is associated with teenage pregnancy and infection.2 Earlier eras demonstrated that efforts to “protect” women restricted their movement, deprived them of critical information and led to the arrest and incarceration of women for things that are now linked to normal dating and sexuality, like travelling to visit intimate partners and learning about and using family planning methods. American adolescents are currently subjected to similar risks both legal and physical, in the form of prosecution for and the use of new technologies in the exploration of their sexuality.

Of particular concern is the practice of “sexting”: sending and receiving mobile phone messages with partial or fully nude photos3 and/or other sexual content. Media researchcompany, The Nielsen Group, reported that 77 percent of US teenagers own a mobile phone and that 83 percent of teenage mobile users use text messaging. Mobile phones provide a widely used medium of exchange, including sexual content whose distribution may have far-reaching consequences.

The most obvious dangers are that sexual content such as images with personally identifying information attached can attract unwelcome attention, cause embarrassment or harm reputations. More seriously, possession or distribution of such images may cause young people to violate child pornography laws. For example, one young man in the state of Florida received nude pictures of his girlfriend when he was 17 years old, and after breaking up with her, he sent her pictures to his list of contacts. Just days after his 18th birthday, he was arrested and charged with nearly 75 counts of child pornography. The particular status of child pornography in US law exposes senders and recipients to draconian punishments and to lasting consequences, such as being required to register as a sex offender. Laws designed to protect young people from adult predators can and are being used to punish young people for acts that may in fact, be better addressed through better privacy protections.

The problem with restrictions

We created an online 10-item survey to be completed using a library computer in order to learn what sexually related terms might be blocked and what kinds of websites were easy and difficult to access. We also interviewed library staff at their workplaces and through telephone and email about the ways these issues were addressed.

We found that restrictions implemented to prevent minors having access to sexual information are implemented in varying ways across the United States, rendering them almost random in effect. Methods used include blocking particular websites, blocking particular words in internet searches, using commercially marketed content filters and requiring users to agree to terms of services that included not seeking inappropriate material. Terms and sites blocked seemed unpredictable and included instances of overblocking, or denying access to information that is clearly not “harmful to minors” including websites of service organizations and websites designed for teenagers. In many instances, access to information was restricted for all users and not merely for people under 17 or 18 years of age. Depending on the library, a user may not be able to find information about anal cancer or contact for lawyers at the Sex Workers Project.

Many words or phrases do not unambiguously identify concepts, posing a severe problem for keyword-based filters An interview with Harriett Selverstone, a former president of the American School Library Association, offered some unexpected examples that block access to scientific information. “We had kids studying space information. There was a website dealing with Mars exploration. Now if you can write out the word Mars and the word exploration next to it, you have the little three letter word ‘sex’: marsexploration. A filter would pick that up and read it as ‘sex’ instead of marsexploration.”

A library that buys filtering software to block pornography may not be aware that the software developers have included personal or political biases in their hers/his decision to include “controversial” topics such as abortion or homosexuality under the heading of offensive content. “The National Organization for Women, which is called NOW, was blocked because they had gay and lesbian rights pages on their website […]”, commented Harriett Selverstone. People from the American Way have been blocked. It’s a non-profit group and it was blocked by another filter called Netshepherd. GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, was blocked. The funny one was, at one point the National Rifle Association, which is a very conservative group, had its own gun rights pages blocked because it was considered an adult site. Planned Parenthood same sex information had been blocked. There was an AIDS authority, AIDS awareness sitethat was blocked by Cyberpatrol…If you think about how important that information is to get out to a community, then people would not have access to these sites.”

A further problem with filters is that they may often be bypassed. Young people - the main target of restrictive filtering - may in fact be the most technically adept at doing this. Technology such as proxy servers may offer a means to bypass content filters. Minors who are unable to access restricted content at school, at the library orat home may instead, access the internet through their cell phone, an unfiltered platform. The heaviest impact of filters designed to protect minors may in fact, fall on adult users.

In some cases, individuals could request that a particular site to be blocked. This introduces a new decision-maker into the process. Requests of this kind may reflect personalconcerns, but individuals may also act as agents of an interest group, submitting requests that reflect the group’s agenda.

The question that arises is one of transparency and accountability. When just about anyone can determinewhat can and cannot be seen, the whole system becomes worryingly arbitrary. Determining why a particular site or page was blocked and undoing malicious or unhelpful choices can be an extremely difficult process.

Deepening the information divide

In the period of the EROTICS research, the US and global economies have contracted. Greater numbers of people are now dependent on shared access to the internet through public libraries. These “new library internet users” may be people whose familiarity with information technology is limited for reasons related to age, level of education, economic status or other factors. It is more difficult for them than for younger users to avoid the roadblocks placed in their way in the form of electronic filters and other access restrictions.

The potential for creating a “digital divide” is considerable. On the one hand there are people who control their own internet access and enjoy essentially unrestricted access to information. On the other there are those who are dependent on others and whose access is limited by technical solutions set in place due to CIPA. The risk forthese electronically disenfranchised users is that reduced access to information will deepen their marginalization and make it harder for them to keep pace with people fortunate enough to enjoy unhindered access.

Our study has revealed that access to information in these instances is arbitrary and confusing. It is difficult to say with certainty what information will or will not be available at any given location. The factors that influence access are obscure, and those responsible for making decisions are hard to identify and often unaccountable for the choices that they make.

Access to information is not necessarily in the hands of the individual regardless of the individual’s age. Instead, third parties - library committees, software developers, interest groups and others - may determine it. These are, or should be, issues of concern for everyone. The benefits that the internet can bring are considerable, but issues of uncertainty, arbitrary decision-making, over-blocking and unequal access can outweigh those benefits.


Read the full United States country report

United States: Restricted access to information: Youth and sexuality


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  • 1. Kirby, Douglas. 2007. Emerging Answers: 2007 Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Washington, D.C.: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
  • 2. Levine, Judith. Harmful to Minors. Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2003.
  • 3. Associated Press (2009, January 15). “Sexting” Shockingly Common Among Teens. CBS NEWS/Associated Press.