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Libraries pressured to filter Net

Recent campaigns in Ohio and Boston are putting the nation's data repositories under the online censorship gun.

Recent campaigns in Ohio and Boston are putting the nation's data repositories under the online censorship gun.

The latest effort would strap computers in Ohio's 250 public libraries with censoring software--a provision buried in the state's 1998 budget bill.

Public libraries across the country have been under fire by groups such as the Family Friendly Libraries, which pushed the provision in Ohio. They say that kids shouldn't surf the Net without protection from "pornographic" sites.

Ohio's proposed state budget was approved by the House in March and is now working its way through the Senate Finance Committee. As the bill moves toward passage, a section that allocates $1 million for the Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) also requires libraries to filter "obscene" and "illegal" sites on the Net using blocking software.

But the American Library Association and American Civil Liberties Union say making blocking software mandatory in libraries in unconstitutional because the programs filter many other topics including sites on safe sex, AIDS, rape, and women's issues.

In February Boston Mayor Thomas Menino drew national attention when he clamped down on kids' surfing privileges by ordering that blocking software be put on the city's 200 computers designated for use by children.

John Roberts, the executive director of the ACLU Boston office, threatened Mayor Menino with a lawsuit, and has since struck a compromise with the city.

Libraries in Bean Town will have unfiltered access to the Net, but computers in children's sections will block sites containing "partial nudity" and "sex acts." However, children who have parental permission will be able surf without restriction.

"In terms of the role the library plays in society, this is still problematic because the library holds itself open as a place where people can go to do research and get information," Roberts said today. "On the other hand, the fact that adults are not being censored makes this a better solution. We would like the parental permission system to be set up so that parents who don't want their kid to have unfiltered access, have to ask--not the other way around."

But forces in Ohio want blocking software to be mandatory on every computer in the state's public libraries.

"The public libraries are owned by the taxpayers and the issue needs to be settled on what the taxpayers want their libraries to represent," said Phil Burress, chairman of the board for Family Friendly Libraries. "We do not want our children exposed to material in the library that is intended for adults."

Civil liberties groups say the real issue isn't protecting kids, however, it's politicians jumping on the Net regulation bandwagon.

"Kids and pornography are a rallying cry. They're not thinking about kids at all, it's just a great organizing issue for people who are part of the radical right," said Christine Link, executive director of ACLU office in Ohio. "Things in the library are offensive to a lot of people, and with the Net, the demand for censorship is enormous."

Librarians want additional funding for the Ohio Public Library Information Network, an exclusive network that ties together the states libraries, offering specialized content. But the ACLU's Link wonders if free speech should be sold off for $1 million.

"Librarians are thrilled, however, the plan is being used as a censorship vehicle now. The legislature has put the board and libraries in a terrible spot," Link said. "There is no way do this without unconstitutionally restricting material that ought to be available to adults and in some cases children."

Steve Wood, who is an OPLIN board member, said libraries can find a way to satisfy the legislature without stomping on the First Amendment, and possibly, without using blocking software.

"We only agreed to find a technological solution that prohibits access to material on the Internet that is illegal under Ohio law. We never promised to use blocking software."

Despite Wood's comments, the OPLIN Board of Directors released a statement today endorsing the use of network filtering technology "to control access to materials on the Internet that may be obscene or harmful to children."

Tony Yankus, executive director of OPLIN, said filtering would be implemented later this year, contingent on state officials' approval of funding and a technical plan.

"The resolution approved by the OPLIN Board strikes a balance between the need to provide access to these resources and our desire to protect children from potentially harmful material," he said.