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):
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.