What You Need to Learn About Porn and Patron Safety
by Steve Albrecht
One of the more vexing issues in public libraries is the viewing of pornographic photos and videos by patrons. Either these images are searched and viewed on the library’s network using a library-provided desktop, laptop, or tablet; the patron looks at them on their own laptop, tablet, or phone (using the library’s Wi-Fi connection); or the patron brings their own imagery on their own device and doesn’t require internet access. It’s even possible that the patron brings pornographic magazines into the library.
|Those who know how to navigate to these [dark web] sites may want to use library computers to do so.
Several issues arise when it comes to this behavior. Is it a “reasonable use/free speech application” by the patron—meaning viewing pornography is not addressed or cannot be enforced by the library’s internet usage policy or code of conduct? Does it not bother other patrons or staffers, meaning its business impact on the library (always a good measure to use when evaluating patron behaviors) is minimal? Or does it irritate patrons or other library employees? Might it lead to a physical confrontation with a parent who has brought their kids to the library on a Saturday and doesn’t want them walking by and seeing what is on this person’s screen?
From an internet usage perspective, does the patron’s ability to look at internet porn mean that they have defeated the filtering software installed by the library’s IT department or vendor—and therefore violated policy? (The sophistication of some of the filtering programs seems to range from quite vigilant to easy to defeat.)
Why It Happens
Why do people watch porn in the library? The short answer is because they can, especially if that content is not filtered. The longer answers are more complex. It’s likely that they enjoy the thrill of doing something prurient, or they like the attention, even if it’s negative, from staffers or other patrons. It’s even more probable that they enjoy being provocative, want to annoy others, and like pushing decency boundaries, especially in a public place.
It’s possible that they are homeless, don’t have internet access, and/or can’t watch it at their home or workplace. Maybe they are not allowed to, or they fear the consequences of being discovered. It could be that they don’t have a cellphone, tablet, or laptop—and the library does. They could have an addiction to pornography, a specific sexual paraphilia, or a mental illness connected to compulsivity. These typically male patrons tend to be both chronologically and sexually immature.
The rationalizations and excuses made to staffers, when confronted, include:
“I’m not bothering anyone. Leave me alone!”
“It’s my First Amendment right to look at what I want.”
“It was an accident.”
“I can’t help it. I have an addiction.”
“It’s no big deal. People are too uptight.”
“I’m doing research. I was just curious.”
“I’ll turn the screen away.”
“Tell people not to look at my screen.”
Defining Child Pornography
Probably the most concerning issue is legal and moral: How do we respond, as library professionals, if we suspect the patron is viewing (and is therefore in possession of) what appears to be video or photo images of child pornography? We already know pornography is legal and child pornography is not. Unfortunately, the age difference in the imagery is not always clear.
The U.S. Department of Justice website states, “Child pornography is a form of child sexual exploitation. Federal law defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (persons less than 18 years old). Images of child pornography are also referred to as child sexual abuse images. Federal law prohibits the production, distribution, importation, reception, or possession of any image of child pornography. A violation of federal child pornography laws is a serious crime, and convicted offenders face fines [and] severe statutory penalties …” (rb.gy/60x38). All states have child porn prosecution laws equivalent to the federal statute. The usual federal response is to seek to prosecute suspects with 500-plus images—an “egregious offender”—in which the punishment is 10 years in prison. Other states may have lower possession numbers that will result in a prosecution.
If we divide internet pornography into two zones—sites that are accessible by anyone (with or without using a search engine) and those that are hidden—it’s less likely that the porn site industry leaders (who get millions of daily visitors) will have obvious child pornography images. This is not because they are excessively noble or vigilant about every photo or video they upload, but because the consequences of child pornography possession and distribution to their thriving, multimillion dollar companies would be severe: prosecution, mainstream and social media coverage, public shaming, being sued by victims or victim advocacy groups, and being forced out of business. These adults-only sites want to keep child pornography away so they can continue to flourish economically. Instead, the illegal content typically dwells at the hidden level. Those who know how to navigate to these sites may want to use library computers to do so.
Statistics on the internet as to the prevalence of pornography sites by overall percentage vary wildly, but the best estimate seems to be that about 4% of all internet sites (about 8 million) are X-rated in content. There may be child pornography imagery on these sites, of course, but it appears to have migrated from the deep web to the dark web. According to the data security firm CrowdStrike, “Simply put, the deep web is any part of the net that is not indexed by search engines. This includes websites that gate their content behind paywalls, password-protected websites, and even the contents of your email. The dark web, on the other hand, uses encryption software to provide even greater security” (rb.gy/nhib3).
While national governments around the world do their best to discover encrypted images, the use of video and image steganography software makes this both difficult and an ongoing battle. Steganography is the process of concealing information within another message or physical object to avoid detection, like how the Greeks used invisible ink to send coded messages more than 2 millennia ago. To transmit child pornography, perpetrators send seemingly innocent photos or videos, which are then downloaded, decoded, and opened via an electronic key that only the sender and receiver have.
Approaches to Internet Policies and Enforcement
|Libraries receiving discounts under the E-Rate
program have been required since 2000 to comply
with Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
regulations that impose certain requirements on
schools or public libraries that receive the E-Rate
discount on internet services. These rules were updated
in 2011. Among the requirements is the establishment
of an internet safety policy that includes
technological measures such as blocking and
filtering software on devices that are accessible by
children to protect them from images that are obscene,
constitute child pornography, or are harmful
to minors. Other conditions apply, and full details
are available at rb.gy/c8v5m.
For most municipal libraries, there are five common approaches for how they allow patrons to access the internet, either through the library’s devices or its Wi-Fi, or if the patrons use their own devices:
- They filter the internet and enforce their policies on screen content.
- They filter and don’t enforce their policies on screen content, allowing their software (and the bypassing skills of the patrons) to decide what is available.
- They don’t filter content and enforce their policies on screen content using staff vigilance.
- They don’t filter and don’t enforce their policies.
- They only filter PCs in the children’s section, not the rest of the library
Internet use policies might naturally differ at law libraries, medical or research libraries, or even college and university libraries, but there is no reason to assume that the problem does not exist there. It’s understandable that most library staffers would rather not have a discussion with patrons who are both out of compliance and viewing pornography. It takes courage to confront behavior that is against policy or out of compliance with the code of conduct in general and viewing pornography specifically.
Best Practices for Prevention and Safe Staff Interventions
Here are some tips for dealing with the situation:
✓ Set early behavioral boundaries based on both your internet use policies and code of conduct.
✓ If possible, warn teenagers in the library that sharing pornographic imagery through their texts, phones, tablets, or laptops can be a crime for both the sender and recipient. (Not an easy conversation to have, but it may be a necessary one to save them a lot of legal grief.)
✓ Use a simple deterrent phrase: “You can’t do that if you want to stay here.” Speak in polite but assertive, low tones. Give one warning, and then enforce your policies, including banning chronic violators of the time limit per your policies. (No consequences mean continuation and escalation.)
✓ Update your internet use policies and code of conduct, as necessary, to match the requirements of new federal or state laws. Train and remind staffers to enforce the policies, getting help to change the ratio of confrontation, if needed.
✓ If you filter the internet in your library (including the children’s room), discuss the effectiveness of your current filtering software with your IT department or vendors.
✓ What about changing the room design in which the internet computers are used? Flip some of the internet-access PC screens around to face the wall, instead of facing them out into the open stacks. Install privacy screens or desk dividers.
✓ For cases of either sexual behavior in the library or suspected child pornography, call your local police station. The responding officers or deputies may not know much about state or federal child pornography laws, but they will be familiar with crimes related to sexual behaviors in public places (and may know the patron by criminal history).
✓ It may be necessary for a local, state, or federal law enforcement officer to impound a library-owned computer, tablet, or laptop as evidence. To assist the continuity of the investigation, take all desktop PCs off Wi-Fi, and put any portable devices that have had access to the internet into airplane mode before giving them to the appropriate law enforcement agency for a forensic review. This helps the evidence technicians do their job more effectively.
The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program
For more advice on these concerns, contact your regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Program center for advice, staff training, and, if necessary, an investigative response after making a police report for a patron suspected of possessing or viewing child pornography.
There are 61 task force programs in the U.S., staffed by more than 5,400 federal, state, and local law enforcement professionals. All 50 states have at least one ICAC Task Force Program agency; some states (such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York) have several offices. Their mission is to investigate child pornography and child abuse imagery and locate, arrest, and prosecute the creators and possessors, both in the U.S. and around the world. They provide training, information, and resources to the public and law enforcement. You can get more information at icactaskforce.org.