Washington — Four Republicans are promoting legislation that would force schools and libraries to use Internet filtering software or lose federal dollars intended to help buy Web access. The effort is alienating civil liberties groups, conservatives and industry executives.
The proposal would be a boon to companies such as NetNanny and SurfControl, whose popular filtering software schools and libraries would have to buy. No money is provided to buy the software.
Introduced in the Senate by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the plan is attached to an appropriations bill up for a final vote this week. Reps. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., and Charles Pickering, R-Miss., lead the House effort.
"This is ensuring that the government is not paying for access to pornography through libraries," said Istook's chief of staff, John Albaugh. "We have received tremendous support from the public on this. It just seems like it's a no-brainer to the average Joe."
Under the proposal, any school or library that did not install software to filter out pornography would lose its federal dollars intended to help buy Internet access.
An odd collection of groups, including state chapters of the Christian Coalition and American Family Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and Internet industry trade organizations, is opposing the initiative. They say it is a bad way to stop youngsters from viewing online pornography at school.
The proposal "fails to prepare our children to act responsibly as Internet citizens," the ACLU's Marvin Johnson wrote lawmakers. "Responsibility implies choice, but blocking removes all choice."
"The filtering mandate sets a troubling precedent for federal regulation of Internet use and Internet access," according to a letter signed by the Computer & Communications Industry Association and Information Technology Association of America, groups that represent the high-tech industry.
Teacher associations and the American Library Association also oppose the effort.
Mandatory filtering opponents say the filters are imperfect and frequently fail to block pornography. Sometimes, they say, the filters reflect a political view. At various times, filters have blocked sites that cater to gays and lesbians as well as conservative sites that contain language hostile to homosexuals.
Only one filtering company will release its list of blocked sites so parents and teachers can review them.
Internet filtering has been a priority of many conservative groups, including Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and the American Family Assn. "Children do not have a constitutional right to access and view Internet pornography in our local libraries," the AFA says on its Web site, www.afa.net.