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Net-porn law applies deadline pressure

Schools and libraries have until Sunday to show they're moving to block access to online porn. If they don't, they lose thousands of dollars each in federal funds.

    Schools and libraries have until Sunday to show they're taking adequate steps to block access to online pornography on public computers. If they don't, they lose thousands of dollars each in federal funds.

    The looming deadline is part of a controversial censorship law known as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), one of several measures limiting access to online content and currently making its way through the courts. Signed into law in December by then-President Bill Clinton, CIPA requires schools and libraries to block visual depictions of pornography, obscenity or other material deemed offensive to children in order to qualify for funds set aside by the government to help pay for computers and Internet access.

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Library Association (ALA) have challenged the law, saying it violates the First Amendment, and a court hearing is scheduled for next February. But schools and libraries in line for education rate, or e-rate, money must comply for now.

    Unlike previous online-porn laws that have been struck down by the courts, CIPA does not attempt to ban the publication of content. That makes it the most narrowly drawn Internet censorship law yet to be tested in the courts. Nevertheless, legal experts say, its requirement to limit content on computers used by adults could leave it vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. In addition, the law has thrown a spotlight on the effectiveness of content filters, which opponents of the law criticize as imperfect.

    "The Internet is an amoeba," said Owen Seitel, a partner at the law firm Idell Berman & Seitel, which is not involved in the lawsuit. "It's always changing, so it's hard to have a good filter."

    Under CIPA, schools and libraries must demonstrate that they either are making significant efforts to evaluate Internet filtering software or are in the process of installing it. Next year, they will be required to show that the technology is in place.

    The law piggybacks on e-rate, a largely successful program designed to help wire the nation's 84,000 public schools and 16,000 public libraries.

    The School and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Company, which manages the e-rate program, said it has received more than 35,300 applications for funds totaling $5.2 billion since CIPA went into effect. As of Sept. 26, the private, nonprofit organization agreed to divide $116 million in e-rate funds between 6,905 schools and $36 million between 3,941 libraries. Beneficiaries must submit CIPA certification by Sunday to receive the money.

    The ALA said that over the past three years more than 5,000 public libraries have received a combined total of $190 million in e-rate funding, much in the form of discounts from Internet access providers.

    A study released in May by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics cited the e-rate program as helping to increase Web access. By the fall of 2000, the funds had helped link 98 percent of public schools in the United States to the Internet, up from 35 percent in 1994. The study found that 98 percent of those schools had "acceptable-use policies" and of those, 74 percent used blocking or filtering software.

    Reaching too far?
    Despite the widespread adoption of filter technology in schools, CIPA's critics have focused on the law's effect on libraries. Ann Beeson, a staff attorney for the ACLU, said the group's suit specifically targets CIPA because of its library provisions.

    "We believe it's unconstitutional because the mandated use of these filters on all terminals--for use by adults as well as minors--is going to inevitably result in censorship of protected speech," she said.

    The ACLU suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia in May, is scheduled for trial Feb. 14, 2002.

    Other critics are worried about the filters themselves, saying the technology is not yet capable of its task.

    Linda Perkins, library services manager for children's services at the Berkeley Public Library in Berkeley, Calif., said the library has not purchased software filters for its computers. She said such filters would block information that's normally available from places such as health sites, peace movement sites, and even pages for the Super Bowl. Perkins said the library offers guidance to children so they find what they need instead of stumbling on a site that would be upsetting to them.

    She said the Berkeley Public Library is not concerned about being compliant with CIPA, since it receives most of its money through the state of California rather than federal sources.

    Internet filters are like "throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Perkins said. "We just haven't seen anything that only removes the bathwater, (however) we would love to have that kind of drain."

    Filter advocates counter, however, that the voluntary adoption rates in schools are a clear vindication of the technology.

    David Burt, a spokesman for filter software maker N2H2, said such controls do work and "the proof is in the level of market penetration that filtering software has achieved."

    The company boasts that it provides filtering software for 25,000 schools and 16.5 million students. As well as blocking access to content, its products let teachers unblock a site or temporarily override the filter, Burt said. For instance, if a student is researching hate groups and the school selected "hate speech" as a category to block, a teacher can unblock a site that provides relevant information.

    The Education Department's study "testifies to the effectiveness of the technology," Burt said. "Seventy-four percent of public schools have already made that decision on their own--to purchase filtering software--even before there was a law."

    Long road for online censorship
    CIPA is not the first law to be challenged by civil rights groups concerned about potential censorship online.

    Four years ago, the ACLU and the ALA challenged the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a bill that would have made it illegal to deliver indecent material over the Internet. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned major portions of the bill, saying such content is considered protected speech for adults.

    Advocates also fought the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was passed three years ago but never took effect. COPA, otherwise known as "the son of CDA," would have outlawed companies that sell sexually explicit material to minors. A federal appeals court blocked the law, saying it would suppress Internet speech.

    The Justice Department appealed the ruling earlier this year to the Supreme Court in an attempt to revive the law. The high court said in May that it would hear the case.

    Civil rights advocates have also been concerned about the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which went into effect April 21, 2000. Although the law requires sites to obtain parental permission before they can collect information on children, a watchdog group, the Center for Media Education, found that many sites were not complying with the law and urged the Federal Trade Commission to enforce it more actively.

    Unlike COPPA, which solely addresses data collected about children, CIPA could place restrictions on adult Web surfers. Seitel, the Idell Berman & Seitel attorney, said lawmakers were "foolish" to include libraries in CIPA, because the majority of people accessing online information at libraries are probably over the age of consent. Adult citizens who may have no other means of using the Internet could be denied information based on "some subjective determination by some unknown expert somewhere as to what's harmful to minors," he said.

    "Legislators--when they introduce legislation and vote for legislation, their eyes get bigger than their stomachs in a way, and they try to do a bit more," Seitel added.