Censorship or how fear got the better of us

April 24, 2007

I work in a public library.  On Monday of this week the City of Virginia Beach spearheaded by the IT department put into place a filter on all city computers.  Under the guise of “network security” neither I nor my colleagues have access to restricted sites that have been deemed verboten.  So what do I do on Monday–I check different sites to see if I still can access them.  The Black Panthers and Aryan nation gone in one fell swoop.  Gmail no longer accessible along with any web-based email service.  Pandora too disappears because Internet radio is just too much fun for workers who must have minimal distractions.

I’ve also discovered that both Flickr and Photobucket are barred because they fall under the category of “Personal network storage and Back-Up”.  This designation has also knocked out Google Documents.  I know they have their reasons for blocking these sites and some of the filters might even have a sound justification. 

Regardless I say we must fight the urge to censor and let the information remain free.  Websites such as Flickr are part of the ongoing social Web experiment and to shut off staff access sends the message “I don’t think it is a priority to use the tools of the now and the future”.  We are backtracking into a climate of control and mistrust.  Evidently we could not self-regulate our web choices and now we have been given a leash to restrain our activities.  And the eyes that are forever watching our at work web activities have been open for quite some time.  With the monitoring of employee movement and now restricting actions even more, what is it we are trying to create and what is the ambiance of the workplace?

Libraries have always been a bastion of free expression and work to promote the hearing of voices from thoughout the community.  Every year we celebrate Banned Books week through flyers and book lists that encourage free thinking and risk taking.  The Internet has brought a new challenge to libraries because the information contained is not so easily hidden between the covers of a book but can be quite graphic and in your face. 

So the principle is still there that libraries provide access to information and now comes text and pictures and sound that moves with the click of a mouse and can bring the most offensive material right before your eyes.  The library does not know what to do so they skirt the lines of freedom and censorship. 

We pay homage to the censorship battles fought over books yet filter the Internet from some of the same content found in said books.  We pay lip service to the noble ideas of freedom and move behind the scenes to choke innovation and a sense of play in the workplace.  We restrict based on outdated notions of security and mindlessly create a  culture of fear.

To get my job done I can work around the sites that are now blocked.  That is not my main concern.  What troubles me is what I feel inside when I consider what censorship in any form does to the freedom of the individual.  I feel stifled and complicit in a sneaky campaign to control from the inside what should be naturally free-flowing. 

If you want a workplace where new ideas are filtered in utero then this is the right course to take.  If you want creatives and innovators looking for employment elsewhere then your big red stopsign is sending the message that it is time to move elsewhere.

These may not be your intentions in censoring this material but your motivations are implicitly understood.  In the name of security you take away freedom.

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