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Attack of the Porn Hunters

Fringe groups are suing EBSCO for cleverly hiding porn in its K12 databases - hiding it so cleverly only the porn hunters can find it.

October 22, 2018
 
 

Most college students in the US are familiar with EBSCO databases. Many K12 students are, too. EBSCO probably introduces more library users to electronic article content than any other database provider. And paper subscriptions to library periodicals, too; it has long been a major subscription agent for libraries. Unlike its competitor, Cengage, which is owned by a private equity consortium, EBSCO is a family-owned business that produces a variety of things, including fishing lures and three-ring binders. The information services piece of the EBSCO company is based in Massachusetts but the parent company is based in Alabama. All this is background for a bizarre legal case accusing EBSCO and a consortium of Colorado libraries of peddling porn to the kiddos in schools. It’s worth paying attention to, since it’s a lawsuit that may well be coming to a school district or a library consortium near you.

Public and school librarians are pretty used to people getting mad at them for having books, including books written for kids, that dare to refer to sex and sexuality. (Books about race or by people of color also tend to get complained about a lot.) The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is used to being portrayed as a libertine smut provider. One guy has been hassling the association for years for defending librarians who stand up for books and programming he objects to.

Apart from having books on the shelf that include information about or fictional works that refer to sexuality on the shelves, public libraries provide access to the internet, and that means some people go online to view porn, which is not pleasant for anyone who is there to do something other than view porn, including people who are there because they are employees of the library. So libraries typically have to come up with public policies about what goes on the shelves and what behavior is not allowed in libraries as well as a procedure for members of the public to challenge those decisions and policies.

EBSCO also has procedures for deciding what goes into their many and massive databases. I know because some years ago I complained that the full text of American Renaissance, a white supremacist rag, was in Academic Search Premier. I wasn’t happy and was pretty public about it. More than a few librarians accused me of favoring censorship as a result. Since the full text of American Renaissance is free on the internet, I argued pulling it from a database was hardly preventing access to the publication. The problem I had was paying a racist organization for their content and confusing students who, bless their hearts, think library content has been selected for quality, though that’s an oversimplification. After all, we provide access to Nature, and sometimes articles in Nature get retracted. This curation thing is a web of trust relationships involving authors, publishers, reviewers, intermediaries, and librarians. It's not foolproof but it's better than, say, what Google and Facebook have come up with. Anyway, I brought up my concern to EBSCO, was told what the process was, and eventually American Renaissance no longer turned up when our students searched a topic to do with race, though a Google search will find those articles, just as it will gladly provide you with porn.

Kathleen McEvoy, Vice President of Communications for EBSCO, provided a statement by email.

EBSCO does not include pornographic titles in its databases, embed pornographic content in its databases, or receive revenue for advertising from any organization. With teams of educators, librarians and subject matter experts (many of whom are also parents of children), we bring together well-known, educational publications into curated collections to serve specific research needs. In addition to the measures we take to ensure only appropriate content is included, we have tools that allow customers to remove any publications from the databases if they so choose. We are appalled by the tenor of allegations related to our intent and the inaccuracies of statements clearly made in absence of factual information.

Here’s the thing: EBSCO aggregates stuff other people publish. They put it into different bundles for libraries to choose from. There’s a process for deciding what goes into these bundles and a process for complaining about what’s in them. There is no plot on the part of EBSCO to corrupt youth any more than librarians, defending people’s freedom to read, are forcing porn on anyone. James LaRue of the Office for Intellectual Freedom lays it out pretty clearly as he did last year in response to a related attack on EBSCO.

A handful of well-organized reactionaries love to force their views on the rest of us. They already convinced legislators to require schools and libraries to use internet filters, a requirement held up by the Supreme Court despite a first amendment challenge. Similar groups have attempted to remove books from school and public libraries for years. Now these culture warriors are trying to force their version of morality on our kids’ education by threatening and attacking schools and library consortia that subscribe to databases, making some pretty ridiculous claims. Apparently over 130 schools have canceled contracts with EBSCO to avoid the social-media driven attacks. Between cost-saving measures like eliminating librarians and libraries in far too many schools, avoiding costly lawsuits may well be on the agenda. It's simply easier to capitulate. We need to be prepared to fight back. Do it for the children.

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