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Archive for Friday, March 29, 2002

Internet filter mandate raises questions for Kansas libraries

March 29, 2002

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— The assistant director of the Hutchinson Public Library says she will do without some federal funding if she is required to install Internet filters on the library's computers.

"If we had to give up some of that for the principle of allowing this, then we would do it," Marcella Kille said. "We really believe in the right to information and intellectual freedom."

This week, a panel of judges in Philadelphia is hearing similar sentiments, as attorneys for the American Library Assn. and the American Civil Liberties Union challenge the Child Internet Protection Act of 2000.

Libraries that do not install the filters by July lose federal technology funding.

The ALA argues that the law violates the Constitution, abolishes community control of libraries and could harm libraries in poor areas.

The government argues that filtering software has vastly improved since the law was enacted, making fewer mistakes and allowing libraries to unblock sites that were blocked in error.

It was unclear when the three-judge panel may rule, but any appeal would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Lawrence Public Library, which receives several thousand dollars in federal funding to help offset the cost of providing Internet access to its patrons but does not currently limit access by filtering, is awaiting the court's decision before taking any action, said library director Bruce Flanders.

If the law is upheld, Flanders said he would recommend to the board of trustees that the library use a blocking technology that works better than traditional key-word filtering programs.

"If I had to rely on traditional Internet filtering software to provide that filtering, I'd be very discouraged," Flanders said. "I believe there is an alternative technology to block access in a fairly accurate manner without inadvertently blocking access to other Internet resources."

Opponents of the law say filters can block inoffensive content while letting in well-disguised, ever-changing sites containing material not suitable for children.

"Filtering software is simply not very good," said Tom Taylor, supervisor at the Newton Public Library, "even the expensive kinds. They have way too many errors."

At Newton, McPherson and Hutchinson, the computers that have Internet access are not filtered. All three libraries said they have caught only a few patrons looking at pornography.

"The impetus for CIPA came from these high-profile news reports where people seeing someone viewing pornography are upset," said Steve Read, the director of the McPherson library. "And, of course, it's upsetting. It's a tough issue."

The Lawrence library has 20 Internet stations available to adult patrons on its lower level. Though the computers are separated by privacy carrels and not monitored by employees, Flanders said the library hadn't had any serious problems with patrons searching for pornographic content.

In Lawrence, children's computers are separate from the adult-use computers and are monitored more heavily. Plus, the computers to which children have access lead them only to certain "child-friendly" Web sites that library staff have chosen.

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