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Silicon Valley library to filter Net

Six months after a Silicon Valley library board voted to offer unfettered Net access, it considers adding filters to some of its online computers.

Just six months after a Silicon Valley library board voted unanimously to offer unfettered Internet access, the same board will consider shifting that position by adding filters to some of its online computers.

A task force made up of Santa Clara County Library board members to study the issue now is recommending that Net filters be added to the computers in children's areas of the county's nine libraries. The task force also is recommending that the board vote to add filters to at least one computer in adult areas.

The meeting and final vote are likely to provoke lively discussion: any time libraries have considered limiting access to the Net, citizens have come out on both sides of the issue.

On one hand, parents want to protect their children from content that they deem to be offensive, including pornography and violence. On the other side, some parents and civil libertarians say the Internet should be treated as another research and learning tool and that libraries should not be involved in limiting access to public material.

Several library filtering policies around the country have been challenged by civil liberties groups, including one involving Loudoun County Library System in Virginia, where all Net terminals contain blocking software.

Bowing to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Board of Supervisors for Kern County, California, reversed its "filtering for all" policy and purchased more computers for its libraries to offer unfiltered Net access on some computers for patrons of all ages at each of its 25 branches.

In Santa Clara, the task force struck a similar compromise by suggesting that libraries provide both flavors of Net access--filtered and nonfiltered. All computers in the children's section of the library would have software filters. The proposal does not recommend any particular screening program or level of filtering.

In addition, at least one computer in the adult area also would be filtered. The idea is that adults who want filtered access and who want to stay in the adult area could do so. Children also would have access to the adult areas. The policy would not require librarians to police use of the computers.

Although county librarian Susan Fuller said she will stand by whatever the board decides, she said she was concerned that adding filters in both the adult and the children's areas could result in less access to the Net.

"I think it's very important that all of our patrons have the option of choice and that we not cut that off," Fuller said.

For instance, one of the nine library branches has only four computers with Net connections: three in the adult area and one in the children's room. "If you filter one in the children's room and one in the adult area, you have filtered half the stations in the library and you have taken out a third of adult access," she said.

Instead, the library staff is proposing another solutions: In a few months it will be switching to Windows NT, which will allow it more options. Fuller said the staff is proposing a menu option that will allow each library patron a choice of filtering options each time he or she logs onto a computer.

There could be several options: from filters that only block hard-core pornography to those that filter based on other criteria such as violence and sexual information.

"I like that idea because it does offer patrons a variety of options," Fuller said. "The real key is that it's patron-driven."

Meanwhile, the board will consider the existing proposal.

"I can understand the goal of trying to create a place that's safer for young children," Fuller said. But, she added, access issues change as children grow older and eventually become adults.

"The courts have said teenagers have rights to quite a broad range of material and material that would be cut out even by the best filters," she said. Topics weeded out by filters include those on safe sex, AIDS, lesbian and gay issues, and abortion.

Fuller said the library has always been a refuge for people--including teenagers--who want information that otherwise can be difficult or embarrassing to find.

"Common sense would tell you that if you are 15 and you're troubled by something and you're too embarrassed to ask, the opportunity to search anonymously would be attractive, particularly when you start thinking about situations like gay lifestyles or incest or alcoholic parents," Fuller said.

"That is the beauty of the American public library," she added. "It's a neutral information source. You're not going to be judged. It is a place where young people can, with safety, find out things that they would like to know."

And, she noted, Net access extends that ability even more.