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Advocates take both sides of Net filtering law

Regulators accept final public comments on a new law requiring libraries and schools that accept federal funds to install computer filters aimed at blocking access to adult material online.

    Regulators accepted final public comments Thursday on a new law requiring libraries and schools that accept federal funds to install computer filters aimed at blocking access to adult material online.

    Librarians and educators criticized the law, saying it may be impossible to enforce. But conservative groups praised the plan, saying it will save children from finding pornography on the Internet.

    Both sides argued their case to the Federal Communications Commission, which is preparing to clarify how the Children's Internet Protection Act (CHIPA) should be implemented.

    The act, tucked into a sweeping spending bill that passed in December, requires public schools and libraries to use technology to filter out Web images deemed inappropriate for children or risk losing federal funds. Schools must submit their filtering plans the next time they apply for federal money.

    Many comments came from school districts, which asked for more time to comply and worried that their funding could be in jeopardy even if they do install filters.

    "There is no technology protection measure that can block inappropriate visual depictions," wrote Catherine Marriott, coordinator of Computer/Library Services at Orchard Park Central Schools in New York. "Schools and libraries while trying to comply with the act should not be held liable for measures which do not meet the expectations of the act."

    Librarians also weighed in, saying it is not their job to act as censors, particularly on computers used mainly by adults. They also mirrored educators' concerns about current filtering technology, saying that the software often fails to block indecent material.

    "Filters do not work and can promote a false sense of security," wrote Karen Danczak Lyons, first deputy commissioner of the Chicago Public Library.

    But not everyone is fighting the new law. Conservative groups said it is at least a first step in saving children from the seedy side of the Web.

    "Libraries and public schools have a compelling interest to protect the physical and psychological well-being of children," wrote representatives of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group that spends much of its time attacking abortion rights. "These interests are compromised when Internet access is left unchecked and patrons, young and old, are unwillingly or unwittingly exposed to the hard-core pornography available throughout the Internet."

    Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families, agreed, urging a stringent interpretation of the law. He added that children should be able to take advantage of the Web's educational opportunities without fearing for their safety.

    However, it may not matter what either side thinks of the legislation. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and American Library Association are planning to file suits challenging the measure, saying it violates the First Amendment by blocking access to content. Both sides already have successfully overturned other federal laws that tried to restrict Web content.

    In its comments on CHIPA, the ACLU reiterated its intentions to file suit. "In our view, CHIPA itself is facially unconstitutional," ACLU attorney Ann Beeson wrote in a letter sent on behalf of her organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.