Libraries fight two-front war over child porn

Dilemma: With an Internet law being weighed in federal court, facilities find federal funding hinges upon fallible kid-shielding software.

March 28, 2002|By Joseph A. Slobodzian | Joseph A. Slobodzian,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

This was an incident that seemed to illustrate perfectly the need for the Children's Internet Protection Act, the federal law that would require libraries to install Internet filtering software as a condition of receiving federal technology funds.

The case involved illegal child pornography found in a lavatory trash bin of the public library in Sun Prairie, Wis. - material apparently downloaded from an Internet site on one of the library's public computer terminals.

As police moved in and confiscated the library's 26 computer terminals, testified librarian Peter Hamon, it seemed a good time to test the filtering software.

So, Hamon said, he tested three types of commercial software with the two Web sites responsible for the images found in the lavatory - and both sites were accessible even with the filters.

Hamon was one of the first witnesses called this week by attorneys for the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are challenging the new law's constitutionality before a special panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia.

Plaintiffs said the law would abrogate local control of libraries; financially harm struggling libraries in poor communities; and arbitrarily restrict access to a wide range of information on sex, health and social issues with no guarantee that children would be protected from obscene or pornographic images. Barring further court orders, the law would take effect in July.

"It really put us in the situation of choosing between economic censorship or filtered censorship," testified Sally Gardner Reed, executive director of Friends of the Library USA.

Reed noted that the Norfolk, Va., Public Library, of which she was director until January, serves a relatively poor region. With an annual budget of $5 million, she said, the library would find it difficult to forfeit the $90,000 it receives through a federal program known as "E-rate." The program provides about $2.25 billion annually to the nation's schools and libraries through discounts in technology and Internet access lines.

Hamon, director of the South Central Library System, a consortium of 50 independent libraries serving predominantly rural southern Wisconsin, testified that the loss of E-rate funding could increase his system's annual communications costs from $100,000 to $500,000.

The government argues that filtering software has vastly improved since the law was enacted, making fewer mistakes and allowing libraries to unblock sites that were blocked in error. The government also contends that printed pornographic materials are not in many library collections, so online obscenity shouldn't be.

"Your policy is just plug in the [Internet] service and essentially tell patrons, `Don't break the law,' is that correct?" asked Timothy Zick, a Justice Department attorney. "Yes," replied Candace Morgan, a librarian for 37 years currently at the Fort Vancouver, Wash., Regional Library.

The three judges - Edward R. Becker, chief of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and U.S. District Judges John P. Fullam and Harvey Bartle III - have said they would hear nine days of testimony from witnesses for the plaintiffs and the U.S. government. The judges will then likely hold the case for study before issuing an opinion.

An additional issue that concerned the three judges was the constitutionality of a public law that is dependent for enforcement on proprietary commercial software. According to testimony, the software is fallible.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford University linguistics professor and authority on filtering software and automated classification systems, testified that every software filter either "overblocks or underblocks," depending on the terms used in the filter.

Librarians testified that, while most offer filters that parents can request when their children use library computers, such filters would make it impossible for adults to search out basic health and sexual information.

Moreover, Nunberg testified, the information on the Internet changes so frequently - an estimated 1.5 million new pages of information are added daily - that "it's hard to find any kind of software to keep up with that."

The Children's Internet Protection Act is the third attempt by Congress by control Internet access by children.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996, which criminalized placing adult-oriented material on the Internet where it could be viewed by children, was invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1997 for being vague and infringing on the rights of adults.

The Child Online Protection Act passed in 1998 is pending before the Supreme Court. The law would limit restrictions to commercial sites and require Web sites to collect a credit-card number or proof of age for access to material deemed "harmful to minors."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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