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August 2, 1998

Senate efforts to control Internet
access at libraries draw criticism

By Timothy C. Barmann

The U.S. Senate is at it again.

Last week, it made another attempt at legislating a solution to the problem of keeping on-line pornography out of the view of children.

It was the Senate's first try since the Communications Decency Act was passed two years ago. Parts of that act were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1997.

In its recent effort, the Senate unanimously passed two Internet-related amendments. One is called the "Internet School Filtering Act," which would require schools and libraries that receive money through the E-Rate program to put filtering software on Internet-connected computers. It was sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Schools would have to install the software on all Web terminals, while libraries would have to install it on at least one terminal.

The other amendment, by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., requires "commercial" Web sites to limit access to material considered "harmful to minors" to those who are 18 or older.

Some education and library groups have criticized the filtering requirement, saying that the decision to use filtering software, which is not foolproof, should be made at the local level, rather than by the federal government.

While the commercial Web site restriction seems to be less controversial, civil liberties advocates argue that it is too broad and that legitimate on-line booksellers could be charged with committing crimes for selling books now protected by the First Amendment.

"Beneath the veneer, it covers any Web site that has a commercial component and which has material that some community will consider `harmful to minors,' " said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He said even a site such as Amazon.com could be prosecuted under the Coats amendment.

Both amendments were added by a voice vote to an unrelated Senate bill that appropriates money for fiscal 1999 for the Departments of Commerce, State, and Justice.

Including these amendments in this huge appropriations bill was "sneaky," Steinhardt said.

"They were brought up without any notice to those members of the Senate who opposed them and without any opportunity for meaningful debate," he said. "In effect, free speech on the Internet was the victim of an ambush."

It's not just the civil libertarians that are critical. The American Library Association expressed its concern about mandating filtering software in a statement issued in February.

"We respectively disagree with the premise that filtering software is the only effective way to guide children away from `questionable' material on the Internet," the statement said.

"The use of blocking software deprives the community of access to many sites that provide valuable as well as constitutionally protected information for both adults and children on subjects ranging from AIDS and breast cancer to religion and politics."

The ALA was referring to the chief shortcoming of filtering software -- it sometimes blocks legitimate material.

Filtering software, which is made by a number of companies, generally restricts what Web sites may be viewed based on a list of banned sites compiled by the software company, or by key words that are often found on pornographic sites. Some software uses a combination of the list and key-word approaches.

The ALA points out that at times such software can go too far. And, in some cases, the software can also fail at its intended purpose. For example, a pornographic site that hasn't yet been reviewed by the software filter company might not be blocked. In other cases, pornographic sites could easily slip by key-word search filters if it doesn't use any of the words that might alert the software to adult content.

In a statement about his views on the two amendments, Sen. Jack Reed, who voted along with 98 other colleagues to pass the bill, was careful not be critical of them.

But he agreed that filtering software "fails to provide complete security," which results in "both child security and constitutional problems."

He said he is hopeful that as the legislation is reshaped to mesh with a House version that it will incorporate other approaches offered by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Those proposals are less restrictive -- they would require libraries and schools to implement an appropriate student policy concerning access and use.

(Sen. John Chafee's office did not respond before this column's deadline to inquiries about the amendments.)

At the East Greenwich Free Library, librarian Robert Balliot says that adult material on the Web hasn't created a problem there. It's a small library, with about 10 terminals that are visible to anyone in the room.

For that reason, if anyone does bring up an adult-oriented site, that person is asked not to do so.

Balliot, who was recently named Rhode Island's "cyberlibrarian" by MCI, said he doesn't like the federal government placing mandates on local libraries.

"I feel that communities have a pretty strong right to decide what they are going to do. . . . They're making community decisions at the federal level with that legislation.

The filtering amendment unfairly singles out libraries in poorer areas that are counting on the E-Rate funds that are yet to be disbursed. "The most important thing to me right now is to make a level playing field."

The library does not use filter software. It does have an access policy posted on its Web site that states that parents or guardians and not the library staff are responsible for what their children view on-line. "Parental supervision of the Internet is advised," it says.

Of course, that can be impractical for many parents, especially those who are working while their kids head to the library after school.

Finding a solution to these dilemmas has proved to be difficult so far. But Congress would do well to give a lot of thought to the ramifications of legislation before enacting it. Sometimes it can create more problems than it solves.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.