The Journal News

OPINION

Friday, March 23, 2001

OUR VIEWS

Unlocking the Internet

Lawsuit would preserve libraries’ job of spreading, not denying, information

The battle has been joined over Congress' attempt to stifle the use of the Internet in public and school libraries. Once again, we're pleased to note, the Westchester Library System is in the front lines.

WLS, which coordinates services among the county's 38 public libraries, is one of the plaintiffs from around the country represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit filed this week. 'Me suits target is a stealthily passed law that threatens libraries with the loss of vital financial aid unless they install computer filters meant to keep children from viewing obscene and other material. The measure was buried in a voluminous spending bill passed by Congress in December. It is to go into effect April 1 unless the libraries, library patrons and Web providers included in the suit are successful in derailing it as the affront to the First Amendment it is.

How can anyone argue against something called the Children's Internet Protection Law? What’s wrong with forcing libraries to screen out obscenity and child pornography, which are not protected by the First Amendment anyway? Or material “inappropriate” for minors, which the law also insists be censored? Why should right-thinking people be rooting for the ACLU?

Because, among other things:

§         The filtering software doesn't exist that can block only what Congress wants b1ocked or can guarantee that material the law does target won't make it to a computer screen. The companies that produce censoring technology don't dispute the numerous tests and studies that have demonstrated the lapses. Citations of inappropriate screening are numerous and sometimes humorous; the lawsuit notes that some filters refused access to a map of Disney World and a list of the passengers on the Mayflower, for example.

§         Considering them trade secrets, filtering companies refuse to disclose the actual Web sites they are blocking. Libraries and their patrons would not even know what some anonymous censor had found to be objectionable.

§         Many libraries, especially those with few computer terminals, would be likely to deny adults access to protected material that a filtering company has decided is unfit for children. That' s like handing an adult a copy of a Dr. Suess favorite when he's asked for William Faulkner.

§         The law permits libraries to shut down a filter for some patrons who can demonstrate a "bona fide research purpose." What’s that? A good question the law leaves unanswered. With libraries facing extreme penalties if they don't comply with an impossibly vague law, they are likely to err on the side of denying access to information -the antithesis of their mission.

§         Libraries, including Westchester Libraries, understand their responsibilities regarding children and the Internet. The lawsuit describes WLS' on-line guidance to children using computers and notes the Internet policies that libraries already have provided voluntari1y.

Since the Internet became the phenomenon it is, lawmakers have been assaulting the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting children. WLS was a party to an earlier lawsuit that successful1y challenged a New York state law that similar to the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, criminalized the distribution of certain material. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that federal measure, finding that the Internet deserved "the highest protection from governmental intrusion."

It still does