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Librarians, locals mull Net filters

Local officials, librarians, and parents are battling over what curious kids and grown-ups alike will encounter when they log onto the Internet via a library computer.

Before the William T. Cozby Public Library in Coppell, Texas, offers public Net access, the town council will decide today whether to block sexually explicit sites or let patrons surf without content controls.

From Massachusetts and Florida to California, local officials, librarians, and parents are battling over what curious kids and grown-ups alike will encounter when they log onto the Internet via a library computer.

What is new about the debate in Coppell, a small town outside of Dallas, is that it comes after the American Library Association issued a policy in July stating that the nation's data repositories shouldn't filter Net access. The seven-person Coppell Library Advisory Board also has rejected the idea of using blocking software or other methods, claiming that the products on the market often barred material protected by the First Amendment.

Still, it is not surprising that some on the Coppell City Council will be voting in favor of adopting a staff recommendation to limit access to certain sites using the program Cyber Patrol.

"There is a strong undercurrent here for the library to be just like your living room. With the Internet, we want to take advantage of all the information, but my opinion is that there should be some type of filtering," said Chuck Sturges, a Coppell city council member.

The plan before the council, written by city staff, calls for screening for full nudity, partial nudity, gross depiction, and sexual activity.

"We are only being consistent with our past practices regarding the materials available at our library. That doesn't mean that you can't find artistic renderings or photographs with partial nudity, sex education, or information on massage therapy, for example," added Steve Goram, Coppell's director of information services. "What it does mean is that you can't find material containing those four items [listed above] solely for entertainment."

Those who manage to circumvent the proposed blocks will have their computer privileges suspended for 90 days and face possible criminal charges. A state penal code prohibits the distribution, exhibition, or display of sexual material that is not suitable for minors unless the material has scientific, educational or social value. According to a letter written by the city attorney, library staff also may face criminal liabilities if patrons pull up Web sites that violated the code. The screening effort could shield librarians from potential liability.

Although some on the Library Advisory Board claim that Coppell is going too fast, the town seems to have done its homework. City staffers quote the Communications Decency Act decision, claiming they are in compliance with the Supreme Court's ruling that struck down a federal law prohibiting the use of the Net to send or show minors "indecent" material. The city council appears to understand how Cyber Patrol works as well.

But opponents of the plan say Coppell should not follow in the footsteps of the state capital, Austin, which filters content. Critics contend that the current technology is not up to par. Coppell shouldn't let the "tail wag the dog" by letting the technology define the real blocking policy, they say.

"I believe that technologies should be developed to ensure free and unencumbered information systems while remaining sensitive and responsive to community standards," said Kim Wagner, a member of the Library Advisory Council who voted against the proposed plan. "The Austin policy is product-specific, and any Internet policy adopted by a library should stand alone."

In February, the Austin Public Library addressed the growing concern that its customers were peeking at porn at some of the system's 22 branches. After an adult patron allegedly printed out pornography he accessed online at an Austin library and another adult was said to be showing kids how to pull up sexual Net sites, Cyber Patrol was installed on all 50 computers that are online in the city's libraries.

Initially, Austin blocked the four categories proposed in Coppell, as well as sites containing violence or profanity; showing Satanic or cult activities; militant extremism; sex education; illegal gambling or drug culture sites; and sites promoting alcohol or tobacco use. In April, though, Austin cut down the blocks to exclude only nudity, sexual acts, and gross depiction.

"Those settings were a little severe," said Frank Bridge, systems programming manager for the Austin Public Library. He added the library, not the city council, adopted the filtering policy. "It was after discussing it with the city legal staff, examining the capabilities of software, and what were we trying to accomplish to balance the needs of everyone concerned that we retained those four filters."

In Coppell and Austin, parties who support the filtering measures say offering online access is a valuable resource for children and patrons who can't afford PCs and Net connections. They contend that a choice has to be made that addresses local concerns while upholding the Constitution.

But the decisions being made by Texas cities and libraries are not going unnoticed by national speech advocacy groups. The American Civil Liberties Union said today that it is examining a number of libraries' blocking methods and will be deciding soon whether to file lawsuits on grounds of censorship.

For example, in Boston, Net access is filtered on computers accessible by children. The city council for San Jose, California, is also considering Councilwoman Pat Dando's proposal to install filtering software on the Net stations designated for use by children in the 22-branch library system. The ten-person council will vote on the plan today, which Mayor Susan Hammer is expected to oppose.

In addition, Ohio's state legislature voted this year to require that all libraries in the state adopt a policy regarding how they will deal with online obscenity. Some Ohio libraries have installed blocking software; others plan to plug into the Library Channel, which allows libraries to pick the sites that they want to be accessible or to use other libraries' lists.

"The effect of that kind of approach is to prohibit even adults' access to perfectly lawful material in the name of protecting children," said Barry Steinhart, the associate director of the ACLU. "The libraries should heed the advice of the ALA, which is not get involved in the business of censorship because it will inevitably be overbroad. If libraries find illegal material like child pornography, they can report it to the local authorities."

Added Cynthia Robinson, associate director of the ALA's office for intellectual freedom: "By installing the software, the libraries are advocating their role as information providers to a third party. We suggest instead, for example, that libraries set up their own home pages so that when somebody sits down, they are already have a place to start their research that outlines how to steer clear of sites they may find offensive."

Today's council votes in Coppell and San Jose will no doubt affirm which side of the fence the towns' lawmakers sit on. "The question really is filtering vs. not filtering," Goram said. "Some of our plan was done in conjunction with the ALA policy, but we also have to face some hard political realities."