On July 21, the U.S. Senate approved two controversial bills that restrict access to Internet material deemed inappropriate for children. The bill introduced by Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), known as the Internet School Filtering Act, requires that schools and libraries that receive federal funds for Internet access install filtering software on public use computers that children might use. The bill was quietly tacked on as an amendment to a bill for appropriations for the Commerce, Justice, and State departments. A second amendment requires commercial sites on the Web to restrict access to material deemed harmful to minors, or face up to six months in jail and a $50,000 fine.
Passage of these censorial measures is sure to set off a new round of campaigning by civil liberties organizations and free speech advocates. The American Library Association has gone on record against Federal mandates for blocking or filtering software. On the ALA Web site (www.ala.org) is a Legislative Alert that issues a call to "Respect Local Decision-Making!" In the "Issues" section of the site, the McCain bill is criticized: "A more acceptable approach would be to require local Internet use policies but to leave the details of these policies to local library boards, school boards, and other appropriate authorities." The National Education Association and the National School Boards Association have also opposed the legislation.
Many joining the protest against the measures have pointed out the inherent weaknesses and flaws in the filtering software solution to protecting against indecent materials. The software is programmed to avoid certain key words, but can also mistakenly block innocuous and legitimate information sites. Those in opposition maintain that mandatory filtering in fact constitutes improper censoring of the Internet. Last year, the ALA approved a resolution that states as follows: "RESOLVED, That the American Library Association affirms that the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights."
Lynne Bradley, deputy executive director of the ALA Washington office, expressed major reservations over how software filters are used. She noted that many of the programs use overly broad criteria and can filter out information that people need. She also feels that use of the software can lead to a false sense of security.
Few public libraries have implemented filtering software to date. Bradley reported to me on the results of an ALA survey done in collaboration with the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS). The "1998 National Survey on Public Library Outlet Connectivity" has not yet been officially released, but she related some interesting figures:
- Public library "outlets" (branches) using filters on some or all public terminals — 15 percent
- Public library outlets with an acceptable-use policy — 85 percent
- Public library outlets with both an acceptable-use policy and using filters — 13 percent
- Public library outlets currently developing an acceptable-use policy — 12 percent
Thus, 97 percent of public libraries either already have or are developing policies on acceptable use of the Internet from public terminals, indicating how seriously libraries are taking this issue.
If the McCain bill becomes law, libraries and schools will face a tough decision—forgoing Federal funding or providing a filtered Internet.