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Net filter firms, libraries seek truce

Representatives from Net filtering software firms, public libraries, and library journals meet to hash out the contentious issue of how public libraries can implement filtering software.

Friends, critics, and vendors of Web filtering in public libraries are meeting today in an attempt to find common ground.

In a day-long series of sessions convened by the American Library Association (ALA) at its Chicago headquarters, representatives from Internet filtering software firms, public libraries, and library journals are hashing out the contentious issue of how public libraries can implement filtering software.

The first meeting between the ALA and filtering firms comes a week after both sides testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on opposing sides of the Child Internet Protection Act. CIPA would require schools and libraries to filter "harmful" online material based on local standards in order to get federal money for Net connections.

The ALA, which strenuously opposes the proposed tie between library filtering and the so-called e-rate subsidy, said the meeting with filtering firms is intended to educate both sides on the needs of libraries and the capabilities of filtering technology.

ALA president Ann Symons stressed that her group's position on filtering has not changed.

"Two years ago the ALA took a position that filtering of constitutionally protected material violates the Library Bill of Rights," Symons said today between sessions. "Our position remains the same. The reason for today's meeting is that we want to express our concerns directly to the software manufacturers and explore how to make the technology work to address the needs of libraries and library users."

Symons said her group wants to preserve the right of libraries to choose what kind of filtering software, if any, to implement: hence the ALA's opposition to the Senate bill requiring filtering in exchange for the e-rate. But the ALA does not oppose content filtering per se, she said.

Symons also pointed out a number of areas in which filtering works outside the content-restriction area. These include helping libraries keep users to time limits and clearing browsing histories between sessions to preserve users' privacy.

Of the dozen filtering firms represented at the meeting, two high-profile players were missing. Both Surfwatch and CyberPatrol had intended to come but had to cancel at the last minute, according to Symons. Net Nanny chief executive Gordon Ross, who testified before the Senate committee, is attending the meeting.

At midday, Symons said she was hopeful for a less antagonistic relationship between libraries and the filtering firms.

"We're hoping to walk away with a better understanding of each other's positions," Symons said. "We want to continue this dialog in a constructive manner and not remain in an adversarial relationship."