Recent campaigns in Ohio and Boston are putting the nation's
data repositories under the online censorship gun.
The latest effort would strap computers in Ohio's 250 public libraries with
censoring software--a provision buried in the state's 1998 budget bill.
Public libraries across the country have been under fire by groups such as the Family Friendly Libraries, which pushed the provision in Ohio. They say that
kids shouldn't surf the Net without protection from "pornographic" sites.
Ohio's proposed state budget was approved by the House in March and is now
working its way through the Senate Finance Committee. As the bill moves
toward passage, a section that allocates $1 million for the Ohio Public
Library Information Network (OPLIN) also requires libraries to filter "obscene" and
"illegal" sites on the Net using blocking software.
But the American Library Association and
American Civil Liberties Union say making
blocking software mandatory in libraries in unconstitutional because the
programs filter many other topics including sites on safe sex, AIDS, rape,
and women's issues.
In February Boston Mayor Thomas Menino
drew national attention when he clamped down on kids' surfing privileges by
ordering that blocking software be put on the city's 200 computers
designated for use by children.
John Roberts, the executive director of the ACLU Boston office, threatened
Mayor Menino with a lawsuit, and has since struck a compromise with the
Libraries in Bean Town will have unfiltered access to the Net, but
computers in children's sections will block sites containing "partial nudity"
and "sex acts." However, children who have parental permission will be able
surf without restriction.
"In terms of the role the library plays in society, this is still
problematic because the library holds itself open as a place where people
can go to do research and get information," Roberts said today. "On the
other hand, the fact that adults are not being censored makes this a better
solution. We would like the parental permission system to be set up so that
parents who don't want their kid to have unfiltered access, have to ask--not
the other way around."
But forces in Ohio want blocking software to be mandatory on every computer
in the state's public libraries.
"The public libraries are owned by the taxpayers and the issue needs to
be settled on what the taxpayers want their libraries to represent," said
Phil Burress, chairman of the board for Family Friendly Libraries.
"We do not want our children exposed to material in the library that is
intended for adults."
Civil liberties groups say the real issue isn't protecting kids,
however, it's politicians jumping on the Net regulation bandwagon.
"Kids and pornography are a rallying cry. They're not thinking about kids
at all, it's just a great organizing issue for people who are part of the
radical right," said Christine Link, executive director of ACLU office in
Ohio. "Things in the library are offensive to a lot of people, and with the
Net, the demand for censorship is enormous."
Librarians want additional funding for the Ohio Public Library
Information Network, an exclusive network that ties together the states
libraries, offering specialized content. But the ACLU's Link wonders if free speech
should be sold off for $1 million.
"Librarians are thrilled, however, the plan is being used as a censorship
vehicle now. The legislature has put the board and libraries in a terrible
spot," Link said. "There is no way do this without unconstitutionally
restricting material that ought to be available to adults and in some cases
Steve Wood, who is an OPLIN board member, said libraries can find a way to
satisfy the legislature without stomping on the First Amendment, and
possibly, without using blocking software.
"We only agreed to find a technological solution that prohibits access
to material on the Internet that is illegal under Ohio law. We never
promised to use blocking software."
Despite Wood's comments, the OPLIN Board of Directors released a statement
today endorsing the use of
network filtering technology "to control access to materials on the
Internet that may be obscene or harmful to children."
Tony Yankus, executive director of OPLIN, said filtering would be
implemented later this year, contingent on state officials' approval of
funding and a technical plan.
"The resolution approved by the OPLIN Board strikes a balance between the
need to provide access to these
resources and our desire to protect children from potentially harmful
material," he said.