UK Researcher Awarded IMLS Funding for Internet Filtering Forum

July 17, 2019 (Lexington, KY) – The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded $54,901 in grant funding to Shannon Oltmann, associate professor at the University of Kentucky, and other researchers, to investigate problems of internet filtering, digital literacy, and information poverty.

Researchers include Shannon Oltmann, associate professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky; Emily Knox, associate professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Illinois; Chris Peterson, researcher at the Center for Civic Media at MIT; and Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director, Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.

The project scope is to examine the lack of research and knowledge about internet filtering, negative impacts on digital literacy, and information disparities across the United States.

“We know almost nothing about how internet filtering is used and there is very little research on it. When I try to conduct research or get funding to conduct research people seem very confused or unaware of the issue,” Oltmann said.

According to Oltmann, internet filtering is difficult to study because it is conducted differently in each community that implements an internet filter. There are no guidelines in place for library directors that spell out everything that needs to be filtered. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires public libraries and schools that receive certain government funding to install an internet filter to block content that is deemed harmful to minors, however this can be interpreted in many ways.

“Depending on where you live you may not be able to access certain content because of these inconsistencies. Due to CIPA being tied to federal funding we know that libraries and schools in lower socioeconomic districts are more likely to accept federal funds and are more likely to have an internet filter than those in wealthier regions,” Oltmann said. “People who are already disadvantaged are now faced with internet restrictions, which seems extra unfair to them.”

In 2017 Knox, Oltmann, and Peterson performed research in Alabama to analyze how libraries and schools set up their filters. There was still an inadequate amount of data.

“We found that no library had the same configuration across the whole state, but we don’t know what it is like nationwide. We were unable to gather enough data in Alabama to perform any statistical analysis concerning socioeconomic status, political affiliation, or race because the sample size was too small,” Oltmann said.

By generating interest around internet filtering they hope to collaborate with other researchers to determine a baseline for what is filtered in each state or nationwide. In the future, they plan to provide best practices and recommendations on types of content to filter.

According to the grant abstract the project consists of three parts: a pre-symposium (first) virtual meeting, a two-day symposium in Lexington, Kentucky, and a post-symposium (final) virtual meeting. As part of the project they are crafting initial calls for participation and securing reviewers for the symposium proposals. The School of Information Science, a part of the College of Communication and Information, is a supporter of the national symposium that will be hosted in Lexington, KY in February 2021.

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