Lawsuits slam Net filtering efforts

The American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association file suits challenging a new law that requires schools and libraries that receive federal funds to filter Web content.

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As expected, the American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association filed separate suits Tuesday challenging a new law that requires schools and libraries that receive federal funds to filter Web content.

Though the suits vary in scope, both allege that forcing schools to filter is unconstitutional because it censors online speech.

"Given the dynamic nature of Internet speech and the inherent limitations of available filtering technology, it is both practically and legally impossible to comply with this mandate," the ALA suit says.

Both the ACLU and ALA have waged successful battles against federal attempts to crack down on Internet content. They succeeded in derailing major portions of both the Communications Decency Act--which would have made it a felony to deliver indecent material over the Net--and the Child Online Protection Act (COPA)--which would outlaw companies that sell indecent material to minors. Still, the Justice Department recently filed an appeal in an attempt to revive COPA.

The challenges brought Tuesday were filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. They target the Children's Internet Protection Act (CHIPA), a law passed in December that forces schools and libraries to filter out images deemed offensive to children or risk losing federal funds.

The challengers argue that the filtering law not only threatens free speech, but it also discriminates against people who rely on libraries for their Web access. Those people will be forced to view filtered material whether they want to or not, even if they are adults, the ALA and ACLU argue.

"Forcing libraries to choose between funding and censorship means millions of library users will lose--particularly those in the most poverty-stricken and geographically isolated areas of the country," ALA President Nancy Kranich said in a statement announcing the organization's suit, which was filed on behalf of libraries of all types and sizes.

The ACLU suit names as plaintiffs a Philadelphia teenager and her aunt, who don't have Internet access at home. The organization's suit is also filed on behalf of public libraries, sites whose content has been wrongly blocked by filtering software--including Planned Parenthood and gay and lesbian site Planetout.com--and conservative congressional candidate Jeffrey Pollock, who learned during his campaign that filters had blocked his site. Both suits target the United States, the Federal Communications Commission--which would be charged with enforcing the law--and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Meanwhile, the conservative Family Research Council held a press conference to criticize the suits, saying challenges to the law mean that libraries will remain "virtual peep shows open to kids and funded by taxpayers."

The group cited several instances of children finding pornography in libraries and said that people are already subject to content restrictions at libraries, including when a book they want is checked out.

"Blocking of constitutionally protected material can happen, but it isn't fatal or terminal," The Family Research Council's Jan LaRue said in a statement outlining the groups opposition to the lawsuits. "Wrongly blocked sites can be unblocked in a couple of minutes on user-based software and within 24 hours on server-based technology."

Even if the law stands, its requirements provide a challenge to companies providing blocking software. The measure requires the blocking of images only, and many filtering companies say it's nearly impossible for their software to distinguish between pictures of nude people on a porn site and those in a painting.