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Public Libraries Face Net Filtering Following Supreme Court Decision
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Posted On June 30, 2003
The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandates that libraries accepting federal funding to assist patrons with Internet access must use Net filters to block pornography, has withstood the challenge of litigation initiated by librarians. In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court found for the government in the case of the United States et al. v. American Library Association, Inc., et al. (Texts of the majority, two concurring, and two dissenting opinions are available from Findlaw at http://laws.findlaw.com/us/000/02-361.html or from the Supreme Court site as a PDF file at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/02pdf/02-361.pdf.)

Across the country, public librarians began to struggle with the ramifications of the decision. Some have already renounced federal funding. Others have begun shopping for filtering software. Most are waiting for more guidance.

Many issues remain unclear at this point. For example, funding from the E-rate program, an Internet discount rate program established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has had a rather limited fiscal impact on libraries. According to the Supreme Court decision, libraries had received some $58.5 million in discounts by the end of June 2002. On the other hand, the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) distributed over $149 million in FY2002 alone. Public librarians with whom I spoke were uncertain whether accepting LSTA funds for non-Internet or non-electronic services would still trigger the CIPA filter requirements.

The ruling did authorize librarians to turn off the blocks at a patron's request, particularly an adult patron, leaving the un-blocking decisions to the librarians. Judith Krug, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, commenting on that aspect of the decision, said, "We can live with that."

Seth Finkelstein, a leading programmer opponent of "censorware" (http://www.sethf.com/anticensorware/), indicated that almost all the popular filter software packages now available allow for customization, where the user can set up a secondary list that adds or subtracts URLs from the primary list. However, he said that "though creating an ALA-approved ‘whitelist' might be technically doable, it would have too many problems."

An ALA representative indicated that its lawyers were analyzing the decision in depth in order to provide advice to the association for assisting libraries with strategies and policies to deal with the new status quo. Despite its disagreement with the decision, ALA plans to provide assistance to libraries to comply with the law in a range of policy options-no one-size-fits-all approach. The representative indicated that ALA should begin producing some solid recommendations by late July or early August.

Current areas of confusion also include which filtering software libraries should choose to license. Following the decision, ALA began pressing Internet filter software producers to supply information about their blacklists. Finkelstein doubted this approach would work, "Censorware builders don't allow anyone to see what's inside the blacklist. It's very complicated."

Nonetheless, responding to ALA queries, one filter software company, BioNet Systems, LLC (http://www.netnanny.com), pointed out that it has an established policy of allowing authorized users to download lists of permitted and restricted Web sites and terms and edit the list at will. Others, such as N2H2 and SurfControl, will allow users to verify the inclusion of a Web address by entering specific URLs.

Susan Kent, city librarian of Los Angeles and head of the public library system serving the largest population in the country, described the process most public library directors are going through. They are waiting for opinions from attorneys, for reactions from library commissioners, for the issuance of regulations implementing the law by the FCC (which Kent indicated might take as long as a year), and for ALA to provide policy advice and guidelines. "For the moment, there are no immediate impacts," said Kent. "We're watching and waiting."

In closing an interview with an ALA representative, I asked whether the organization had ever considered recommending the use of very poor filter software-one that caught next to nothing and updated rarely. Pausing, he responded, "We may now."


Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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