Hard way to learn Internet lessons

April 01, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- History may well remember Jeffery Pollock as the candidate who censored himself.

He didn't plan to do it. He merely fell prey, as politicians often do, to the age-old Law of Unintended Consequences.

Mr. Pollock, a conservative Republican businessman in Portland, Ore., ran for Congress last year as a big foe of Internet pornography. He favored federal laws to mandate the use of Internet filtering software to block pornographic sites from computers used in schools and libraries.

That was before he discovered that at least one popular filtering program was blocking his Web site, Pollock4Congress.com.

It was hard to say why this bizarre cyber blocking occurred, but Mr. Pollock figures the culprits are words like "rape" and "incest" in his anti-abortion statement.

Either way, he was outraged enough to do something rare among politicians: He announced that, after receiving new information, he had changed his mind.

"I have found that Internet filtering technology has not lived up to its promise," he told me in a telephone interview last week. "It is not as effective as its manufacturers say it is."

Mr. Pollock lost his race, but he says he is running again, this time as an opponent of mandated filters. And, while he calls himself a lot more conservative than the American Civil Liberties Union, he is happy to stand with the ACLU on this issue.

He supports the tandem lawsuits that the ACLU and the American Library Association have filed against the Children's Internet Protection Act. The new federal law, which former President Clinton signed under Republican pressure as part of a mammoth budget bill in December, requires public libraries to use Internet filters. Otherwise, they could lose federal funds intended to wire schools and libraries with the Internet and other computer-age technology.

Unfortunately, the suits contend, even the best filtering programs often block nonpornographic sites, including those that contain precisely the sort of political speech that the First Amendment was written to protect.

Among other horror stories the ALA has tallied, the word "breast" has triggered blocks against sites that offer information on breast cancer, breast feeding and the cooking of chicken breasts. Another filter blocked every group that has the word "association" in its name, just because of the word's first three letters. Another filter just happened to block a Time magazine article that criticized that particular brand of filter.

The Children's Internet Protection Act richly illustrates how easy it is to get away with restricting people's rights if you do it in the name of protecting children, whether you actually protect any children.

Forcing libraries to install Internet filters will protect children only marginally, if at all. But it certainly will hurt libraries by forcing them to bear the cost of technology that is expected to do what technology cannot do: make value judgments about what material may be too pornographic, hateful, illegal or violent for human consumption.

On the other side, groups like the Family Research Council admit that the filters aren't as good as most of us would like them to be, but they support the Internet filtering bill anyway.

The new law is worth the trouble in order to protect children, says the council. But a more important question to ask is whether Congress is the best judge for how local libraries should police children's access to objectionable material.

Better solutions are coming at the local level. Libraries and their local governing boards across the country have been working quite fruitfully with their neighbors on family-related Internet concerns without congressional intervention. Some local libraries offer patrons a choice of filtered and unfiltered computers. Some require parental approval before children can use unfiltered computers.

Issues involving libraries, schools and families are best handled locally. Yet, some of the same members of Congress who rail against big government elsewhere just can't seem to stop themselves from meddling with Internet content. Maybe more of them need to have their Web pages blocked. Perhaps then they will realize how you can't restrict somebody else's rights without restricting your own, too.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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