Libraries, hotspot lending, and CIPA

I was excited today to see that the Chicago Public Library lends wifi hotspots. And then I learned that this is old news. The CPL program and a similar one at the New York Public Library were funded in part by the Knight News Challenge back in 2014, and they weren’t the first. (I’m not sure what was, but Providence Community Library started one in 2013.)

Here’s a round-up with links to a few libraries’ current pages explaining their programs. I’ve also listed funding sources where possible because I think a bit of skepticism is healthy here. (Though I don’t see anything too fishy.)

After I got over the fact that I should have rejoiced about this awhile ago, I realized another reason to be glad.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires, among other things, that libraries receiving federal funding for internet access install filters on their computers blocking access to images that are “obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors.” (The final restriction applies only to computers used by minors.)

If this sounds unconstitutional to you, you’re not alone. (In fact, you’re in the company of Justice Stevens and Justices Souter and Ginsburg.) Libraries and other internet freedom advocates have been fighting this law since it came into force. Nonetheless, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, and libraries have to follow it. Here’s a great summary of the history by the ALA, and here’s an accounting of the harms caused by CIPA, from EFF.

As I’ve said, though, CIPA applies to the library’s computers. It doesn’t seem to apply to hotspots (or to laptops patrons bring to use in-library internet). And fortunately, the libraries I checked with (Chicago, Providence, and Seattle) aren’t filtering their hotspots on their own.

I’m often frustrated that law doesn’t change as technology does, but on this occasion I’m rejoicing about it.


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