Responding to Database Challenges

Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Internet Filters, Policies

By: Frederic Murray

ScreenshotEBSCO is an online database company whose products are in thousands of schools, colleges and universities’ around the world. In September of 2016, the products they developed for the K-12 market came under attack in Colorado and Alabama. The challenges were made concerning the inclusion of sexual content deemed inappropriate for school-age children. Overdrive, Gale, ProQuest and Cengage were also held to account. Accusations of providing pornography and enabling sexual exploitation were laid against against school districts and libraries.

It is federal law that schools cannot receive federal discounts for internet access unless filters are in place to screen out pornography, see 539 US 194 (2003). The schools under question had such filters, but, as many of us know, databases are connected to the internet and therefore have the potential to connect to websites outside the network.

The response of the stakeholders, to parent’s legitimate concerns, in both states were met alacrity and diligence. In the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado, the chief academic officer shut the system down and began working with EBSCO to exclude certain periodicals. In both Colorado and Alabama, EBSCO released fact sheets and guides detailing its response and plan of action to remove objectionable publications and conduct ongoing evaluations of content.

EBSCO took a clear stance in providing opportunities for libraries and school districts to work with support and training staff to keep collections relevant. It is important to note that schools are able to control the level of content made available in searches, and the districts under questions are taking steps to strengthen this level of protection by removing links to third-party, out-of-network, sites. Deselecting material, as any librarian knows, is part and parcel of making sure collections remain relevant and useful to patrons.

Often databases and electronic resources are overlooked when updating or creating selection policies. Selection policies should address all the resources the library provides regardless of format, whether it’s published articles, e-books, streaming content, apps or electronic tools. And when concerns like these arise, even though it is not a traditional book, those involved should follow the same reconsideration procedures and policies they have adopted for a print material. Professionally, as traditional book challenges are reported, it is the responsibility of those involved to report the challenge of a database to ALA. In the last year, six libraries have received email or social media complaints that originated from the National Center of Sexual Exploitation. As the Office for Intellectual Freedom is aware of these trends, we can provide more resources and support and information to prepare libraries should it happen to them.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) is a Washington D.C. based, non-profit, anti-pornography organization. It is the group that leveled, and continues to level, serious allegations of sexual exploitation and pornography peddling on the part of school districts, libraries and database vendors. Its approach to the issue of sexual exploitation is quixotic to say the least. It proudly touts its media campaign against companies it has deemed “The Dirty Dozen.” These are companies or organizations that the NCOSE considers to be “leading facilitators of sexual exploitation.” These companies include Roku, Amnesty International, Amazon and the American Library Association.

The NCOSE seem more concerned with imposing its standards and values concerning sexual activity, and what it considers to be obscene, then the very real problems of trafficking and violence at the center of sexual exploitation in the modern world. Its own financial data bears this out for the 2016 fiscal year. Only 3 percent of its monies were spent towards trafficking and prostitution initiatives while 13 percent was spent on its “Dirty Dozen” media campaign. $156,000 seems like an awful lot of money to spend on a list.

In contrast, the International Justice Mission, an international, non-governmental 501(c) (3), exists to combat sex trafficking, child sexual assault, cybersex trafficking and forced labor slavery — real issues concerned with sexual exploitation. The IJM spent close to $44 million in efforts to protect those in physical, legal, economic and psychological need.

Who is doing the real work here?

In the field of education, we are better served teaching our students to be responsible critics of information, than relying on filters, or other technological solutions, which will always be imperfect at best. We are better served looking for solutions among the responsible parties, than favoring the intercession of third-party advocacy groups looking to make scandal where little exists.


Frederic MurrayFrederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at


  • I think the problems with the EBSCO K-12 databases merit clarification. EBSCO was notified more than a year ago by a group in Colorado that their K-12 products contained obscene material. Up to the present time, these products continue to stream content that has heavy sexual and pornographic themes and images. Much of the obscene content is actually not from 3rd party sites, but is streaming directly into EBSCO search platforms and, as such, is protected as proprietary. EBSCO K-12 “research” or “homework” databases cannot be filtered by sponsoring institutions. I think it’s important to clarify this point: K-12 databases have been found to stream articles, images and erotic stories with titles such as “Pony Girls of Berlin”, “Playing on the Edge, Sadomasochism, Risk and Intimacy”, “Getting into Kink”, “Miss America and the Strippers”, “Spanking Natasha: Post Soviet Pornography and the Internet”, which hosts live links to Russian bondage porn sites under the auspices of scholastic content, or “Oh Come Now”, which advertises the “All American Whopper Dong” to kids. These are just a very few of the hundreds of sexually graphic and highly gratuitous results embedded into EBSCO K-12 “academic” databases. This material is adult in nature and most parents and educators find it indefensible that it should be embedded into products advertised as vetted and appropriate for schools. School libraries wouldn’t put this on their shelves and it doesn’t belong in school databases either. We are not talking about the internet, which can be filtered and it is important to make this distinction – EBSCO databases are proprietary and designed to bypass top site filtering.

    Furthermore, adult material tends to stream to the top of even benign searches. Innocent searches beginning on terms such as diabetes, respiration, celebrity, fashion, and other similar innocuous terms rapidly link to age-inappropriate material. K-12 articles are networked through live search terms (lust, sexual positions, orgies, group sex, dildos, bdsm, etc) that categorically just don’t belong in school products for kids, and these terms are integral to the databases and cannot be filtered out by sponsoring institutions. The databases stream scores of “sex toy” advertisements, some in full color, and some with links to a myriad of 3rd party sites such as Babeland, Dame, Womyn’s Ware, and others. Many articles stream live links to hard core porn sites such as Lust Cinema, Pervgirl, or Butt Club, to name a few. These kinds of articles and links are found in Middle and High School databases, and sometimes even in Elementary level database products. And, while it is true that schools should be blocking obscene 3rd party sites, it is also true that the articles containing such links are obscene and pornographic in and of themselves. Moreover, third party blocking is only effective on school property, and easily bypassed once kids are off site to do their homework. EBSCO aggressively markets their phone apps to students, facilitating the bypassing of school blocks. Live links to porn sites embedded in school products constitute an “attractive nuisance” to put it in legal terms, being framed in the context of lurid or obscene text and positioned to float to the top of benign searches. There is a parallel to be drawn here with the “big tobacco” advertising to minors and, as the harms of underage exposure to pornography, including ties to sexually violent behavior, become more clearly defined, EBSCO’s potential liability becomes more tangible.

    Our Colorado group notified EBSCO about the problems more than a year ago yet, to date, most schools around the country appear unaware of the problems. This may be because EBSCO has issued misleading public statements to its K-12 customers, giving false assurances that products are vetted and age appropriate. In Colorado, two major school districts, Adams 12 and Cherry Creek, have collaborated to produce an “exclusion list”, dubbed the “Adams 12 List”, which is a compilation of publications (eg. Best Female Erotica, Cosmo, Men’s Health, Esquire, and many other adult magazines, journals and books) to be removed from K-12 databases. Production of the Adams 12 List required exhaustive hours of work on the part of school personnel and others. EBSCO did not assist with the development of the Adams 12 List but agreed to make the requested customizations to limit adult material. EBSCO has thus deflected its corporate responsibility by placing the burden on its customers – the company continues to market products as age appropriate for schools, without telling their customers about all the heavy lifting that will be required for “clean up”. EBSCO seems to place premium value, not on its school customers but, rather, on its publishing clients, promising the latter a broad marketplace, one that includes over 50,000 schools in the United States alone, or roughly 50 million school aged children and minor youth to be targeted with ads and promotional material for the 95 billion dollar sex industry. When considered in this light, parents and educators must ask themselves whether financial imperatives are behind EBSCO’s deflections and delays when it comes to cleaning up school products.

    Schools around the country should know that they can ask for Colorado’s “Adams 12 List”, but be warned that it is far from a cure. Here in Colorado, our group, Concerned Citizens for School Databases, continues to locate obscene and pornographic material streaming into K-12 database, requiring continual “cherry picking” responses from school technology experts who can’t keep up with the demands from angry taxpayers. Indeed, there are other online school resources available, and some districts appear to be canceling their EBSCO subscriptions in favor of these.

  • EBSCO certainly postures at being a good corporate citizen but the facts belie the posturing. If schools are required to pick through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of periodicals and articles, selecting those for exclusion, this is hardly a feather in EBSCO’s cap. One might congratulate the schools but it is clear that EBSCO is neither a willing, nor a responsible partner in the effort.

    As Dr. Paterson has pointed out, EBSCO is in more than 50,000 schools nationwide (US). This is 110,000,000 eye balls looking at EBSCO database content. There isn’t a newspaper, a magazine, or a television news program in the nation that can boast these numbers and it is likely the basis for pricing their rates.

    Frankly, in all likelihood, the subscription fee that EBSCO charges to schools and libraries is a “loss leader” to get the product in the door and in front of those eye balls. No other explanation makes sense in light of EBSCO’s obstruction toward any change.

    This issue is not restricted to Colorado or Alabama. EBSCO is nationwide (and international) and EBSCO has admitted that the obscene a pornographic content being complained of is, indeed, in their products. It is not restricted or filtered in any manner, either for content or by state.

    EBSCO may say that it has taken steps to remove offending material but the facts are that they have not. This can be easily validated by going to your local library’s online portal and viewing the EBSCO “homework” resources. Just type in something like “sex” and then start following the chain of breadcrumbs through the various magazine “Subject” searches and you will see where they lead.

    Now, you might ask why a student should be searching on terms like “sex” but that is entirely the wrong question. The correct question, as it pertains to minor children, is why is this material in these school databases at all? That is a question that EBSCO has dodged for a year and a half. That is a question that various libraries have dodged for over a year.

    There have been profound statements about censorship and 1st Amendment Rights; all sounding very noble, as if there is never any argument for censorship but this is a poorly thought out argument; it is not based upon logic, it is not based upon the law, it is based on ideology. There are all sorts of examples of censorship in society; and for good reasons. We can’t yell fire in a theater. Would the ALA and the libraries argue that this activity should be protected? We can’t threaten someone. Is that a 1st Amendment right? The implication that, somehow, blocking obscene material from access by minor children is an unreasonable infringement on 1st Amendment protections is ludicrous.

    Finally, we have a consumer protection issue. EBSCO’s website proudly boasts that its school product, “features relevant, age-appropriate content”. If Sex Toy ads and pornographic videos populate the EBSCO school databases, they are clearly misrepresenting their product, unless they feel that these are relevant and appropriate areas of inquiries for school children.

    There is no defense of EBSCO’s callous and greedy exploitation of our nation’s children. EBSCO needs to take the responsibility for it’s own monster, not pass it on to schools and libraries that have purchases the product. Doing anything else reveals EBSCO for the poor corporate citizen that it is. Schools and libraries, nationwide, should be cancelling their EBSCO subscriptions until EBSCO can guarantee that all the offending material has been removed from all databases being provided to minor children

  • You are way off the mark in accusing NCOSE of trying to force its standards and values concerning sexual activity. Rather, it is EBSCO and pornographers that are trying to force this type of material onto our children, all in the name of profit. If you have ever actually looked at the material, the way that the ads are constructed, it is clear they are pointed directly at a young audience.

    Are you seriously suggestion that we just allow unfettered sexual content to be streamed at school aged children? This is the problem with the ALA and other like-minded groups. If anyone were to suggest that we allow children to have unsupervised access to firearms, the howl from your group would be deafening. Yet, suggest that very disturbing images of simulated rape, torture of women, advertisements to join escort services and graphic ads of sex toys be displayed to school aged children and there is barely a yawn from the ALA and libraries.

    You have a very distorted view of the world that children ought to grow up in.

  • I appreciate everyone’s comments. It’s important that everyone’s opinion be heard.

    Thank You

  • I plan to write a much longer piece on this for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy. The short version: the NCOSE makes a host of untenable claims. EBSCO, a periodical index in use throughout American libraries for decades without controversy, does not contain “obscene” content. This is a smear campaign; there are no legal challenges to EBSCO’s content, nor any evidence that minors are seeking the salacious content alleged by NCOSE. The attack has as its sole aim the attempt to advance the goals and viewpoint of the former Morality in Media. But stay tuned for more on that story.

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