Overblocking Autonomy: The Case of Mandatory Library Filtering Software
Continental Philosophy Review, Vol. 42, pp. 81-100, 2009
27 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2008 Last revised: 26 Jun 2009
Date Written: October 22, 2008
In U.S. v. American Library Association (2003), the Supreme Court upheld the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandated that libraries receiving federal funding for public Internet access install content filtering programs on computers which provide that access. Since almost all public libraries receive such funding, and since they generally require the money to remain in operation, the statute creates a de facto requirement that public libraries install Internet filtering programs. These programs analyze incoming content, and block the receipt of objectionable material, in particular pornography. Thus, patrons at public libraries are protected from unintentionally (or intentionally) accessing objectionable material, and, in the case of minors, from accessing potentially damaging material.
At least, that is the official story. In this paper, I develop three points. (1) I argue that CIPA and ALA are better read as examples of the enforcement of a regime of normative sexuality. The question of minors accessing pornography is only relevant to the official story insofar as it provides a rhetorically persuasive example of deviance from that normative regime. There are less intrusive means to stop kids from getting pornography at the library. Analysis of the legislative history of CIPA, and of the Supreme Court's language in upholding it, suggest its breadth and the extent to which exclusive attention to the regulation of pornography functions as a legitimatory red herring. CIPA's full target includes information about topics such as homosexuality and contraception. (2) Rather than (or in addition to) punishing deviances directly, CIPA attempts to constitute a "public" in which such deviancy can never occur in the first place. Because its appearance is blocked, in the world of CIPA and from the point of view of those who rely on the "public" space of the Internet at the library in the formation of their subjectivities, deviance does not exist. Hence, the designation of a "public" space serves to domesticate alternative sexualities and to sanitize that space of sexual difference. (3) This interaction at the border of the public and private spheres in turn offers an opportunity to reflect on and underscore the ways that subject formation and subjectivity are mediated through technological artifacts like the Internet.
Keywords: Library filtering, subjectivity, Internet, public sphere
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