Web sites that offer tools and techniques for circumventing filters are also heavily filtered. Just as new Web sites with options for circumventing Internet filters are regularly offered by Internet users around the world, blocking lists in Iran are frequently updated to include these new Web sites. A great majority of Web sites offering information about and access to circumvention tools tested by ONI were blocked.
Consistent with one of the stated objectives of Iran’s filtering policy, pornographic content is heavily filtered. Iran is highly successful in blocking pornography, blocking a vast majority of the Web sites tested by ONI. Sites that include photographs depicting provocative attire are also consistently blocked. Esmail Radkani, of Iran’s quasi-official Information Technology Company, claimed in an interview in September 2006 that ten million Web sites were filtered at that time, 90 percent of which contained “immoral” content. Anther official was quoted in November 2008 saying that five million Web sites were blocked in Iran. Given the large number of Web sites with sexual content blocked in Iran, neither of those estimates is implausible.
ONI conducted testing in 2008 and 2009 on five ISPs in Iran: ITC, Gostar, Parsonline, Datak and Sepanta. The testing results confirm that Iran has continued to consolidate its position as one of the most extensive filterers of the Internet. Iran consistently filters a broad range of Web sites that are offensive to the moral standards of Iran’s religious leadership. Internet censors in Iran have moved decisively against a number of political targets over the past two years, including women’s rights groups, human rights organizations and political opposition parties.
Filtering in Iran is implemented by routing all public Internet traffic through proxy servers. This allows the employment of filtering software to target specific Web pages as well as the blocking of keywords. The blocking of Web sites is carried out in a transparent manner in Iran; a blockpage is displayed to users that attempt to access a blocked site with a warning to users that they are not permitted to access a particular Web site. The blockpages, which vary by ISP, generally include a contact e-mail address for users that might wish to contact the filtering administrators to question or contest the blocking of a Web site.
A noteworthy recent development in Iran’s filtering regime is the implementation of a centralized filtering regime. Historically, there has been substantial variation in blocking across different ISPs, with several ISPs filtering fewer Web sites than TCI and thereby offering a more permissive view of the Internet. This variation in access to Web sites was the result of differences in the implementation of government filtering instructions by ISPs. This differential filtering practice has now been effectively replaced by a uniform filtering pattern with the implementation of the supplementary centralized filtering system. The vestiges of the ISP-based system, however, are still apparent: the source of filtering is evident by the blockpage that appears, which in some cases comes from the respective ISPs and in other cases from a standard blockpage issued by TCI. It is unclear what the long-term structure of the filtering system will be. Options include continuing with the current dual location filtering system or switching to either a system in which all filtering is carried out at a central point or to a distributed but centrally coordinated filtering system. Regardless of the method chosen for implementation, it appears that Iran is firmly on the path towards a centralized filtering system under the control of the government, as carried out in Saudi Arabia, for example.
Since 2001, school districts that receive discounts on internet access or internal connections as part of the e-rate program by CIPA to use “technology protection measures” (filters) to block visual images that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors. However, anecdotal information indicates that many local school districts have been filtering far beyond what the law mandates for more than a decade.
Meeting this challenge requires a commitment on the part of librarians and trustees to thoroughly understand the requirements of the law and its constitutional application in the public library. Consulting with experts within librarianship, as well as independent legal counsel dedicated to the best interests of the library and its users, are a crucial part of this process. A further commitment to ensuring that the library’s internet filter and filtering policies are as friendly to the First Amendment as possible will help public libraries avoid infringing on their users’ constitutionally protected right to access online information.
CIPA and the 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding it require librarians and trustees alike to make a difficult choice between the profession’s core values of intellectual freedom and equity of access, and the acceptance of federal funds that enable the library to receive internet access discounts in exchange for filtering that access. The challenge is to comply with CIPA and the Supreme Court’s decision while at the same time fulfilling the library’s mission to provide content, not suppress it, and to increase access, not restrict it.
Theresa Chmara, general counsel for ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation, why librarians and trustees should not rely on the Bradburn decision for guidance in crafting their internet policies. Nevertheless, the Bradburn decision illustrates the misunderstandings that lead schools and libraries to adopt restrictive internet filtering policies that do not conform to the law or to the Supreme Court’s opinion.
In April 2012, a federal district court in Spokane, Washington, issued a decision that brought all the misunderstandings and confusion about CIPA to the forefront. The lawsuit, Bradburn et. al v. North Central Regional Library District, was filed by patrons who said the library refused to unblock websites containing legal information about tobacco use, art galleries, and general-interest blogs. The court’s ruling upheld the library’s policy of selectively allowing or refusing adult users’ requests to unblock filtered websites, even when the sites contain constitutionally protected speech that is legal for adults to view. US District Judge Edward Shea agreed that the library could employ filtering as a form of content selection and said that the library’s policies were justified by the conditions imposed by CIPA.
Clearly, the Supreme Court recognized that overly restrictive internet filtering can infringe upon the rights of adult library users to access protected speech. When the use of blocking software is mandated by Congress as a condition for funding, the requirement that libraries unblock websites or disable filters for adult users functions as a First Amendment safety valve.
The plurality ruled that the First Amendment does not prohibit Congress from requiring public libraries to use internet filters to control what library users and staff access online, as long as adults can ask that the filters be disabled without having to justify their request. The decision thus upheld the text of CIPA, not any specific application of the law. As Justice Kennedy explained, so long as libraries unblock or disable the filter for adult users without delay, there is no basis for a constitutional challenge to CIPA. But if libraries cannot disable the filter for adult users in a timely fashion, or if the rights of adults to view material on the internet are burdened in any other way, it could give rise to a claim in the future that CIPA is unconstitutional as applied.