Update

On September 29th I received an official reply from Toronto Public Library with the following:

  • Netsweeper is used for filtering on children’s public access computers (“pornography” and “criminal information” categories).
  • Netsweeper is also used for blocking access to all sites aside from the library web page on computers designated as public access catalogues
  • Netsweeper has been used at the library for around 10 years

Introduction

Last week stories began to circulate in the media (here’s one from the Toronto Star) based on a report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab that Canadian tech company Netsweeper’s filtering solution was being used in Bahrain to censor websites, “including content relating to human rights, oppositional political websites, Shiite websites, local and regional news sources, and content critical of religion”.

The Netsweeper name triggered a vague memory in me that it was one of the filtering technologies used at Toronto Public Library (and, as far as I can tell, many other libraries and schools in Canada and the US).

The situation raises a number of questions about library technology policy in the already troublesome area of Internet filtering. The library’s stated Vision, Mission & Values include support for intellectual freedom (“Guaranteeing and facilitating the free exchange of information and ideas in a democratic society, protecting intellectual freedom and respecting individuals’ rights to privacy and choice”), as does the Materials Selection policy that “endorses the Canadian Library Association’s Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom”.

Filtering technology is a classic “dual use” technology, which has reasonable applications in the management of network traffic, library policy and legal requirements in certain areas, and censorious applications in other areas. To my mind, the core question is the ethics of libraries doing business with companies who sell their dual-use products to aid censorship efforts overseas and in other areas.

Waiting on an Answer

I sent an inquiry via Toronto Public Library’s public contact form early on the morning of Thursday, September 22. Late that afternoon, I received acknowledgement and confirmation that staff from the Information Technology Department would respond directly to these questions:

  1. Is Netsweeper currently being used by Toronto Public Library?
  2. Was it used previously?
  3. If use has been discontinued, when was use discontinued?
  4. Who is the current provider/providers (if any) of filtering technology used by the library?

The library’s own Customer Feedback Procedure says a response will be provided within 10 business days, so I assume I will receive a response within that time and update this post accordingly.