Shaking the jar: VPL’s newly recommended policy on public internet use

*Addendum (2014-08-25): I love that dialogue is happening regarding this policy, and while I am delighted to be part of this conversation, I want to make it abundantly clear that my only position here is in favour of well-written policy. This post does not argue for or against the spirit of the new VPL policy on public internet use, rather it tries to make sense of and recommend points of reevaluation for said policy. In fact, I am of the opinion that the policy is too ambiguous in some sections to even allow one to form an accurate opinion of its content. Anyway, I love hearing your thoughts either way, and the Twitter response to this has been nothing short of inspiring. Keep asking questions, and keep up the dialogue, Libraryland!

Around this time last month, the Vancouver Public Library issued a new policy recommendation on public internet use.

I’m on the fence about the spirit of the policy recommendations, but I am of the opinion that if you’re going to write a policy, you need to do it right. I think that there are some holes and inconsistencies in the policy itself that would stop it from being completely effective.

For users, here’s the gist:
Old policy: Look at whatever legal material you want on library computers, or using library internet (i.e. WiFi). But you know, please be considerate of others.
Newly recommended policy: “Users must not use any workstation or the public wireless network to display explicit sexual images.”

This policy doesn’t have a clear rationale section; you have to kind of parse that out of the text of the 12 page memo.

From what I can tell, it boils down to:

– Patrons and staff have a right to be treated with dignity and mutual respect

– Staff have a right to work in a harassment free environment

– People shouldn’t be allowed to violate the aforementioned rights by looking at sexy internet pictures

– Technology is a bitch. (sexy) Streaming websites are more common, and monitors are high resolution 19′-22′. It’s just plain easier to see what (sexy) things people are doing on library computers, thus making it easier for others to realize that they’re offended

Additionally, page 6 of the memo uses the world’s most user unfriendly table – seriously, pay close attention to the row labels, or you’ll totally misinterpret the whole thing – to indicate that there was a spike in complaints about sexy pictures in 2014. Can we talk about this for a second? The number went from 1 to 4. One. to. four. No further information is given about the nature of these complaints, and there isn’t a way to tell if it’s simply the same person complaining over and over again.

But everyone else is doing it

According to page 7 of the memo:

“A review of computer use policies from 12 other BC and Canadian libraries shows that most of the libraries’ policies have statements that are clearer and more directive than VPL’s policy. These policies offer some alternatives for strengthening VPL’s policy. Greater Victoria, Edmonton and Hamilton public libraries all state that library computers and wireless may not be used to display overt or explicit sexual images. Ottawa and Richmond public libraries both note in their policy that that it is the library’s “responsibility to provide an environment that is free from sexual harassment and discourages Internet use that denies other a safe environment.”

“Each of these libraries shares the same values of intellectual freedom as VPL, but have implemented more direct language with regards to the use of shared public computing resources and conduct in a shared space.”

Hey, don’t get me wrong here, I think borrowing inspiration from other libraries is incredibly useful. But I’d like more context than the intellectual freedom bit. What was the impetus for the use of direct language at these other 12 libraries?  Also, these libraries’ policies talk about shared space, whereas this new VPL policy is specific to workstations and wireless internet. These are very different things. According to the VPL’s policy, technically one could set up shop with mobile internet on a personal device and look at “unacceptable” images, and the policy wouldn’t be enforceable.

One of the reasons for the policy change, as indicated in the Why? section above, is that technology has changed in a way that makes users’ activities more visible. With mobile internet and the ability to tether becoming more ubiquitous, technology is also allowing for “unacceptable” content to be viewed in public spaces without using public resources. This policy seems to pick and choose which aspects of technological impact the library will address. If the policy included library space rather than library technological resources, this could clear up this muddy water.

Who decides what “inappropriate” is?

Page 2 of the memo states that the policy is, in part, a result of patron comments and security incidents in 2014. Are these complaints defining what “inappropriate” means? There is a key piece missing from this policy recommendation, and that is a clear definition of what acceptable and unacceptable sexual content are defined as. It does make it clear that illegal content is not acceptable, but I mean, duh.

How about we take a real look what inappropriate actually is before we outlaw it? Because if you don’t, people (patrons, staff, flies on the wall) are going to assert that their personal definitions of unacceptable are correct. And then they’re going to argue about it. And then everyone involved will feel harassed. I guarantee you that there are going to be people that would lump nude art and pornography in the same category, just like there are people who will assert that they are inherently different (fyi, I roll with the latter crowd).


“…over the past couple of years there has been increasing incidents of patrons, staff and security guards observing and reporting people viewing unacceptable images on library workstations.” (emphasis added by me)

Ok, I see what you’re saying here, except that over the past couple of years there has been no policy that dictates what “inappropriate” entails. How can you make a statement that indicates an increase in something that, as far as the policy is concerned, doesn’t exist?

What about other non-sexual forms of harassment?

On page 4 of the memo, the definition of workplace harassment is taken form the BC Human Rights Code: “Displaying or distributing derogatory or offensive pictures, graffiti or other materials related to any of the Prohibited Grounds, including but not limited to racist, sexist, or homophobic materials;”

Well, I’m glad they referenced the BC Human Rights Code, but am disappointed that they fall short of protecting the very rights that they explicitly refer to in the memo. This memo only covers the sexy stuff, but I can guarantee you that there’s a camp of people who would also like to be protected from, say, videos of people being executed by ISIS, or people burning crosses, or people abusing animals.

wait tho, i have a real life example.
Our family is not the doors-closed type. We shower, use the washroom, get changed, etc. with doors open. No one gives a fuck because we’re family, and whatever. When we were growing up, if a door was closed, no one ever bothered to knock. So obviously, my mom walked in on my brothers watching pornography like, maybe a million times. And I’m pretty sure we laughed about it, and I’m also sure it came up as a topic of conversation at supper time, in a very nonchalant way.
When I was in grade 12, I went away on exchange, and we had a girl from Argentina living in our house. My mom walked in on her watching videos on the computer as well, only they weren’t pornographic at all. Rather, they were videos of people skinning cats. That’s right. Humans skinning cats, making videos of it, and putting those videos on the internet. My mom was beyond disturbed. She couldn’t talk about it for a long time, and she couldn’t look at the exchange student in the face. I’m pretty sure she felt the exact feelings that this VPL policy is trying to prevent. She was harassed by these images.

My point here, is that everyone isn’t offended by all the same stuff. It’s a mixed bag. It’s inappropriate to lump offensive content under the umbrella of sexual content, because it just isn’t accurate. What about violent content? I’d sooner watch a video of two people having consensual sex than watch a video of a person being beaten. Well, actually, I’d rather see neither.

In sum

Listen, I don’t think that having policies on restricted content for library users is necessarily a bad thing, if it protects the interests of the public. However, the wording and justification delineated in the memo outlining the policy changes falls short of this goal. To improve, I think that the following issues need to be addressed:

1. How is VPL defining what “unacceptable” content is? Is it any form of nudity? Is it just porn? This needs to be defined explicitly.

2. How will VPL protect from non-sexual forms of harassing material, as outlined by the BC Human Rights Code?

3. Would shifting this policy from an internet- and technology-based policy to a public space-based policy do a better job of protecting patrons?

What do you think of VPL’s changes to its policy on public internet use? What would you change?


4 thoughts on “Shaking the jar: VPL’s newly recommended policy on public internet use

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