I heard Facebook removed an obscene picture of a breastfeeding woman, and Craigslist tightened the reins on their erotic services section. However, like many people, I wasn't overly-concerned with electronic censorship -- that is, until it directly affected me.
Typing in isolation with my tush snuggled against my living room couch's cushions can be alienating; therefore, I prefer to pack my computer inside my red shoulder-strap bag and scout the city. To do my work, I need privacy, space to spread out and a powerful electrical source for my laptop. My partner in crime is old; he usually runs out of juice after an hour or two.
I go to the library because the threesome that includes my work, laptop and little brown me are welcome there. At least I thought we were until we were thrown into the lot with child pornographers.
Settling in for a long day's work at the Mid-Manhattan branch located on 40th Street and 5th Avenue, I ride the elevator to the second floor, set my personal laptop on the docking station table, tap into the free wifi and pull my chair to the table's edge. Creativity, like all living sources, requires feeding; therefore, I write regular entries on my blog, www.funkybrownchick.com, to keep the momentum going.
"The site you are trying to access has been blocked by the New York Public Library," the warning screen shouted. Sites containing visual depictions of obscenity, child pornography, and materials that are "harmful to minors" trigger the block.
I'd been banned, tagged as a "sex" website. Not surprising, I guess. I'm a dating, sex and relationships writer. I scribble articles about men who wear thongs, technology and sex, how to enhance consensual adult play with toys and other juicy topics that (I hope!) bring pleasure to people who read my work.
I've written for Lifetime, New York Press, Nerve, Gen Art, Fast Company, a Turner Broadcasting Company website called The Frisky and elsewhere. NPR, Sirius Satellite radio and Canadian national public radio (CBC) have interviewed me about my dating commentary. I mention some of my writing street cred to alert you I'm not the "oh-I'm-a-I-writer-but-I-never-put-in-the-hard-work-to-actually-get-my-stuff-published" kind. I sincerely care about my work.
I am neither obscene, a child pornographer nor harmful to minors. Hell, I receive more graphic and (adult) pornographic content via emails from friends than I do on my blog. So, when my site was banned, I got pissed off and the square keys on my laptop took the beating.
I mouthed off on Twitter, blasting my complaint to more than 1,400 of my followers. Dishing about the incident on my high-traffic blog -- Funky Brown Chick, the same one that NYPL banned -- I typed, "Book burning = bad. Banning sex ed websites = good. Okay. Got it."
To be clear, I don't expect NYPL to give underage patrons access to images of porn.
Where's the line and who decides what's on the wrong side of it?
Even if the ban on my site hadn't been lifted, web-savvy young library patrons could still access it via RSS feeds or anonymous browsing. (I was loath to mention that in my blog post because, more often than not, discussions about censorship workarounds trigger tête-à-têtes about how to fix these "loopholes" rather than constructive conversations about whether bans are necessary.)
In the end, an amazing person who identified himself as Gary says he successfully submitted a request to unblock my site. Hallelujah! Let there be sex.
"[NYPL internet access management systems] are automated, and look for sites that have heavy use of words like [explicative], sex, etc., and/or images related to similar words. But automated=lots of mistakes [...]" he notes in a comment on my blog, going further to mention filters are probably the most ethical way to meet organizational requirements for government cash. In other words, buildings that store our nation's literary documents need money, and they aren't going to risk access to federal funds over a blocked website or two.
I love the New York Public Library. "The very existence of libraries," T.S. Elliot tells us, "affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man." For now, even in times of financial hardship, our cities make it a financial priority to provide adults unfettered access to information. I hope that never changes.
For the record, I've owed overdue library fines for years. After this incident, I paid them. The fees are gone; however, questions about electronic censorship remain. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.