What is Public Access?

Prince Edward Island, like many jurisdictions, has a government-supported program of providing public Internet terminals to its citizens. Here in PEI this is called the Community Access Program, and it involves 76 locations across the Island that offer a variety of services, including, at the very minumum, one public Internet terminal.

As I’d never been to a so-call “CAP site,” I thought I should visit one, so I went up the road to the Atlantic Technology Centre, which opened this year, and has just expanded and improved its facilities.

One of the first things I noticed was their Acceptable Use Policy, which is posted in front of every terminal. I took one down and asked for a photocopy of it, and the security guard at the front desk helpfully provided one for me (click for a larger image):

ATC

Now I must admit, before going any further, that in my heart I am a "let anyone do anything as long as it doesn't harm anyone else" kind of person. I don't believe in limits to expression. I don't believe in censorship. I don't believe in monitoring. So take everything I say with that in mind.

That said, I don’t have a fundamental problem with the notion of an Acceptable Use Policy inasmuch as a corporate entity needs to protect itself from liability. But I think the Technology Centre’s Acceptable Use Policy goes much further than that, and it does it in an annoyingly amateur fashion that results not only in setting up a draconian environment, but a foggy one at that.

It starts off slow: respect the facility, the people and the equipment and keep the noise nown. I’ve got no problem with that.

Then things heat up:

Clients visiting ATC CAP Site are prohibited from accessing inappropriate websites or material. Users are not to visit unacceptable websites (i.e. porn, bomb construction, hate literature, etc.) If in doubt that a site is deemed inappropriate please contact ATC Corporate office.

Now even if you’re willing to set aside that there is a difference between expression about something and doing something (i.e. websites about building bombs vs. actually building bombs), the guideline about what’s “inappropriate” isn’t a technical legal definition. They’ve set up a situation where “inappropriate” is, in essence “whatever we say is inappropriate.”

That’s wrong. Not only do I find this approach personally objectionable, but I would argue that it is in contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that says, in part, that “Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:”

  • freedom of conscience and religion;
  • freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • freedom of association.

Further, as the mission statement of the Canadian Library Association says:

We believe that libraries and the principles of intellectual freedom and free universal access to information are key components of an open and democratic society.

I agree. And I think “access only to that information we deem acceptable” isn’t the same as “free universal access.”

The next two sections of the Acceptable Use Policy are the “hammer” they use to enforce the policy:

The websites you visit are logged and monitored by Security personnel.
Security cameras are used to monitor the CAP computers and users.

That seems just plain draconian to me: I can’t imagine how it’s possible for anyone to freely and openly explore the world of the Internet with an electronic watchdog literally looking over their shoulder. It’s a violation of privacy, and unnecessary limit to freedom, and combined with the earlier “we’ll decide what’s appropriate” clause, it sets up a dynamic where surfing the web becomes an intellectual minefield.

The requirement that users not install viruses, worms, etc. is reasonable (although it might usefully be accompanied by a warning that this doesn’t mean the public terminals are necessarily free of these).

The limitation that children under the age of 16 must be “supervised by an adult” seems wrongheaded. I think one of the most useful aspects of the Internet is the access it affords to older children and teenagers to information that they would have difficulty — perceived or actual — getting access to otherwise. A teen who wants information about birth control. Or the effects of drugs. Or communism. A more reasonable approach — and one adopted by the provincial library system — is that parents must give one-time initial consent for children under 15, after which they are allowed free, unaccompanied access.

The “first come, first served” policy seems reasonable.

The “Use of profanity, obscenity, or printing content of an unacceptable nature is no acceptable with ATC” suffers from the same problems as the prohibition against “inappropriate websites or material,” namely the lack of a definition of “unacceptable material.”

The statement that “Downloading and copying of copyrighted material, including photographs, books, music and movies is strictly prohibited” is the blanket paranoid “you can’t run Kazaa” clause. Leaving aside that the computers at the CAP site afford no access to floppy, CD, USB or any other way of “downloading and copying,” a statement like this demands considerable elaboration. For example, there is considerable content on the Internet that, even though it is “copyrighted,” is freely available for personal use. This website, for example, is subject to this license, which allows copying.

Indeed it might be more appropriate to simply let the following clause, “ATC CAP Site computers are not to be used for criminal intent or acts,” stand, and leave out the copyright clause, for at least the prohibition against criminal acts has a dispute settlement mechanism, and leaves the responsibility with the user of the computer for determining the appropriateness of their actions.

Why is all of this important?

Because the Community Access Program is the cornerstone of the provincial and federal governments’ program to ensure the closing of the so-called “digital divide” and the universal access to the power of the Internet. Mitch Murphy, at the time the Minister of Technology, put it this way in 2000:

CAP sites enable communities across Prince Edward Island to take advantage of the Internet and other information technologies as a tool for social, cultural and economic development.

When CAP sites are cloaked in unacceptable Acceptable Use Policies, though, government is creating another sort of digital divide: between the people with the resources to freely browse the Internet from their home, without video camera monitoring, security personnel logging and arbitrary content restrictions, and those without their own means, who are left to browse in public under a sort of digital house arrest.

This has to change.

Comments

Mark's picture
Mark on August 26, 2004 - 22:53

I defintley agree, that these policies are crap but they are there more then liklely to protect them from lawsuits. Such as little timmys parents catch him at a cap site looking at porn and dont see any policy stating not to otherwise, so they sue the ATC..Tis just the affect of American Culture on our soceity…

Also btw when you click on the pdf, I at least get

The image

Marko Peric's picture
Marko Peric on August 27, 2004 - 02:53

I have to admit I’m somewhat ambivalent on this issue. First, I agree that it does come off as somewhat on the draconian side, and it definitely lacks clear definition, (apart from the bomb-making references). Yes, reading instructions on how to make a bomb is not the same as making one. I once stumbled across a purported CIA manual on how to carry out assassinations (this was, incidently, when I was using a public computer) and in my curiousity read several screens worth of information. This doesn’t mean I’m going to go and start offing public figures, just because I learned how to on a public access computer.

On the other hand, people will attempt to access almost anything they can on a computer. I have worked for several years at a local retailer of computers, and people will constantly try to access the internet on our display computers (which are never ‘net connected). They also have a tendency to change screen savers to display profanity, take pictures of themselves flipping off attached cameras, and one more than one occassion, set background images to swastikas and/or badly drawn pictures of Adolf Hitler. Oh, and they will frequently try to delete everything on the desktop, change any settings they have access to, and generally sabotage the machines.

So while the ATC Cap site use policy may be badly written and unconstitutional, it’s necessary. It’s not necessary that it be so harsh, perhaps, but necessary.

Mark H's picture
Mark H on August 27, 2004 - 13:14

Do you suppose they treat all computers on their network (i.e. non-public nodes) as such?

oliver's picture
oliver on August 27, 2004 - 14:56

It’s sad how often noble ideas like the constitution’s conflict with people’s intuitions about what’s common sense.

Alan's picture
Alan on August 27, 2004 - 15:41

The unconstitutionality is slightly exaggerated as only 2(b) might be affected:

2(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

First, if one were to worry about the constitutional breaches imposed by the current government of PEI, this is pretty low rung. Just check out their track record of lost Charter cases, pointlessly but inevitably under appeal after appeal.

Then, these rights are defined by a two-part test not just their title. Here is a useful article on the test. One key factor in this situation is time and place. “Mere regulation as to time and place cannot be considered an infringement of freedom of expression, unless there is evidence that such regulation in intent or effect adversely impacts upon content or adversely interferes with production, availability and use or determines who can be involved in these.”

Besides, it’s not like a CAP site is actually “the cornerstone of the provincial and federal government’s program to ensure the closing of the so-called digital divide and the universal access to the power of the internet.” It’s a fluff program that must account for far less than 1% of all internet usage. These restrictions have no affect on overall availability.

As it is a public kiosk usually in a lobby or a busy room, there is nothing inappropriate — and certainly nothing unconstitutional — in the restriction of accessing material one can access more privately in the corner of a library or at home.

Lisa Howard's picture
Lisa Howard on August 27, 2004 - 21:41

Peter, as you know, I tend to favour access to information and freedom of expression too. So I’m with you on this one. To those of you who are saying that these kinds or restrictions are just a matter of practicality I say look at it this way: if the object of these rules is to keep people from doing damage to equipment then we should consider why we don’t chain people to desks so that they don’t scribble all over the books in the library. Do we think that access to the internet is different than access to books? Probably. Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s just that we think that the expense when damage occurs will be more. It’s also possible that we think the internet is just a more powerful tool. However, we might want to consider what the long term damage to society will be if all the books are chained and the internet locked down. Limiting access to information is inherently undemocratic and there are all kinds of repercussions that result from having an uninformed public running around voting on this or that issue (or more probably not voting). Anyway, this seems to be part of a current trend. People are a little cavalier about civil liberties these days. I’m not sure why. Part of it is undoubtedly 9/11. Maybe it has to do with the growing role that the private sector seems to be playing in democracies. Anyway the end result is that people seem willing to put up with more unjustified crap. People used to be so proud of their freedoms. Some of them even used to say things like fuck you, I don’t need your supervision. Now we say: “Go ahead, sniff my bum. I have nothing to hide and anyone who refuses to have their bum sniffed is a bad person who has probably done something wrong.”

Wayne's picture
Wayne on August 27, 2004 - 23:25

Ever wonder why teen drop-in centers fail every day, and why I snicker when a community tries, sometimes for the third time in 20 years, to reopen one? Because, to be run successfully, there needs to be rules. Of course, there are a few, who feel that rules are made to be broken, or they do not apply to them. Most of the rule-breakers need to justify their actions by claiming the rules violate their rights. Invaribly, the many suffer because of the few. It is not a right to be able to use the CAP sights, a privilige. In exchange, abide by a few simple rules outlining proper behaviour, for those who do not know better. If you don`t like it, go elsewhere. And, there is always an elsewhere.

Thank heaven there are laws that violate the rights of those who feel they should be free to be able to run around, yelling “ Fire!“, or expressing a view of hate towards a segment of our society. There is a point of balance, and debate helps us to find that point. It should be easy to see that there is no probable about it, books are edited and content is accountable, which contrasts with the dribble and foolishness one needs to wade through to find good content and opinion on the internet. And people do need to be protected from themselves, for the good of society. How far should a society go to protect the many from the few? One of my favourite quotes…“Just watch me!

Foog's picture
Foog on August 28, 2004 - 13:31

Ever wonder why teen drop-in centres fail? Why, it’s the lack of rules. Of course! I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen this scenario…

- Hey Jack *puff* wanna go to the drop-in centre and play some ping-pong with the *hack* youth minister?

- Naw, *coff* they just don’t give me the rules and structure that I crave. Let’s get really fucking drunk and drive your mom’s car to McDonald’s instead.

- OK

…that’s right. more than anything else, it is the absence of rules that keeps them away in droves. It certainly couldn’t be the lack of funding, the lack of interest on all sides, and the preponderance of drop-in centres with a hidden agenda and a few too many rules, nosirree.

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