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Libraries get a break on Net filters

The FCC gives libraries an extra year to comply with a controversial law that says if they accept federal funds, they must install Internet filtering software.

Under a deadline set Thursday, libraries have an extra year to comply with a controversial law that says if they accept federal funds, they must install Internet filtering software.

The Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the law, set the deadline of July 1, 2004, in a 49-page ruling released Thursday. Because the law, called the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), had been challenged in court, the FCC decided it was reasonable to give libraries time to comply.

"Consistent with the implementation framework established by Congress, libraries receiving E-rate discounts for Internet access or internal connections shall have one year from July 1, 2003, which is the start of funding year 2003, to come into compliance with the filtering requirements of CIPA," the FCC said.

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ruling of a three-judge panel in Philadelphia and decided that CIPA did not violate the First Amendment. A 6-to-3 majority of the justices noted "the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled," saying a patron who finds a site blocked can simply ask a librarian to unblock it.

Opponents of the law--including the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union--have challenged CIPA, saying it violates the free-speech rights of adults and could prevent minors from getting information about topics such as breast cancer or the Holocaust.

The discounted Internet connections for libraries in question are paid for by "E-rate" taxes. These are levied on telecommunications companies, which typically pass along the burden to telephone, cell phone and wireless subscribers in the form of higher monthly bills. In March, a U.S. House of Representatives committee stepped up a probe of the E-rate program, saying it was "investigating the potential for and troubling reports of waste, fraud and abuse" that comes to hundreds of millions of dollars.

In comments filed with the FCC, filtering software maker N2H2 had requested that the commission not set standards for filtering software to make it comply with CIPA.

"We feel these are decisions best left to the free market and our customers to decide," an N2H2 spokesman said Thursday. "So we are pleased by the ruling."

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