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Agency frowns on Net filtering

A federal agency that advises Congress and the president says local communities--not the government--should decide how to handle minors' Net access in libraries.

While Congress considers mandating that libraries install Net screening software, a federal commission has determined that local communities--not the government--should be making these rules.

The National Commission on Libraries & Information Science (NCLIS), an agency that advises Congress and the president, went one step further by stating that if libraries want to limit children's Net access they should adopt "acceptable use" policies.

"NCLIS believes that libraries and their governing boards can take effective action at the local level to mitigate the perils facing children using the Internet," the commission concluded. "Thus, the commission strongly recommends that each library have a written 'acceptable use policy,' approved by its governing structure and reviewed periodically to adjust to the continuous changes in the Internet."

The commission did not advocate installing software to censor certain Web sites--although it did acknowledge, among numerous suggestions, that blocking software was one way libraries could choose to curtail children's access to select content.

The recommendation is a blow to those who want to require that all libraries hinder entry to online pornography or other material that is "harmful to minors." The resolution also flies in the face of federal legislation to mandate libraries to screen online content as a condition of getting federal Net access subsidies known as the e-rate.

"If there were one cookie cutter stamped out by the federal government that said how a library should operate, everybody would be dissatisfied," said Robert Willard, executive director of the commission. "Libraries are the level of government closest to the people--it is not appropriate for the federal government to step in."

Free-speech advocates, who have sparred with libraries over blocking access at Net terminals used by adults in the name of protecting children, saw the NCLIS stance as a another notch in their belt.

"I think it's a very good sign," said Chris Hansen, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney. "The commission is correctly suggesting that the federalization of this issue is not a wise alternative."

Despite a federal judge's decision that it is unconstitutional for a library in Loudoun County, Virginia, to filter Net access for all patrons, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Rep. Bob Franks (R-New Jersey) have revived a bill to require that e-rate recipients install filters.

After a hearing in November, NCLIS members decided to release the recommendations before their March meeting because they knew Congress was going to tackle the issue this session. For the most part, the commission's stance echoes that of the American Library Association, although the ALA takes a harder line against filtering.

Prior to the hearing, NCLIS vice chair Martha Gould said she wanted to hear from experts who could describe the "dark side of the Internet." The statement alarmed civil liberties groups who worried the commission would side with McCain and others who advocate library filtering when it comes to minors.

"It looks like once they got away from the rhetoric, they concluded that a well-thought-out Net use policy in a public library will reasonably deal with most of the problems that really exist," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"It will be interesting to see if McCain now ignores their recommendations," he added.

Those who want libraries to crack down on minors' access to adult content on the Net hope that their allies in Congress hang tough. Online filtering information site Filtering Facts founder, librarian David Burt, says libraries have a duty to limit access to illegal material.

"Legislation is needed because there are some libraries that are not being responsible," said Burt, who testified before the commission. "McCain's bill is better than nothing, but I would like to see an even stronger bill that applies to all libraries."