Internet Imbroglio

The Tucson-Pima Public Library balances indecency concerns with First Amendment rights

The issue of Internet pornography at the Tucson-Pima Public Library has agitated quite a few people, chief among them Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll. He thinks the library should put filters on every computer available for public use.

Filters are software programs that prevent access to unwanted or inappropriate material. It's known as content control software, parental control ware or censorware.

There are 446 computers in the Tucson-Pima Public Library system (TPPL). Library patrons log roughly 68,000 sessions per month, the majority of which represent e-mail messages sent and received, homework and other research, according to TPPL Director Nancy Ledeboer.

Should these 68,000 sessions be filtered? They already are. To use a computer at one of the TPPL branches, you log into the system using your library card. If the card was issued to someone younger than 18, the Internet experience is filtered--no choice involved. If the card was issued to an adult, the patron is provided with the choice of access with or without a filter.

One reason is that TPPL receives federal E-Rate support, a program funded through telecommunications companies. It provides libraries with discounts for Internet access and telecommunications services. By federal law, if a library receives E-Rate funds, it must filter Internet access. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that, under the First Amendment, unfiltered access must be provided to adults who request it.

These days, computer access isn't a privilege; it's pretty much a necessity. A student or job-seeker who doesn't own a computer is at a severe disadvantage. Many companies require that applications be filled out online. Try finding a government form anywhere except on a .gov Web site. Homework assignments themselves are often posted online. That's one reason libraries provide public access computers.

Problems come up when access is over- or under-blocked. Over-blocking cuts access to legitimate sites--for example, sites that discuss breast cancer or prostate cancer. Under-blocking allows access to unwanted content.

The sad truth is that the best filters in the world are not only fighting an uphill battle; they're fighting a losing one.

Today, there are more ways to access indecent sites than filters can keep up with. Images can't be filtered, so the library blocks access to Google's image search. Files sent as e-mail attachments can't be checked by filters, either.

Users on a filtered computer can use software to access forbidden sites by first linking to another, off-site computer. No trace of their travels is ever left on the computer they're working from: no cookies, no history log. The filter in use on that computer only sees the address of the off-site computer.

So what's to be done?

Ledeboer says that librarians today have to recognize that the Internet is an unregulated medium.

"The Internet isn't like cable TV, where you get a basic plan, and if you pay more, you can get HBO and Showtime. It's all there, all the time," she noted.

Ledeboer reminds people that while Carroll wants to filter everything for everyone, the Supreme Court says the library must be able to turn off filters for adults. Today, if a patron finds a desired site is blocked, they can request it be unblocked. The request is first reviewed, and then goes to IT staff for the actual unblocking; the process takes about 24 hours.

Ledeboer feels the library's role is to teach parents the skills they need to discuss Internet access with their children--to know not only what to ask, but how to understand their answers. Library officials are concentrating on education, creating classes and tutorials designed to help library patrons become computer and Internet literate. For instance, they hold workshops for parents about MySpace: what it is, who goes there and why, why parents should know about it, and what their kids may be doing there.

The Library also provides a kid-safe area, Kids Web, that's available from the library's main page at . In addition to Kids Web, users can also access sections called Teen Zone and Homework Help.

But back to the filters question: An Ad Hoc Advisory Committee is being formed to try to find a way to make everyone happy. The proposed members include experts in law and Internet technology, religious advisors, library professionals, teachers and representatives of law enforcement. Their report regarding pornography access at library facilities is due after six months, when the Board of Supervisors will take up the matter again.

There's not going to be any easy fix. Hackers are still going to work vigorously on defeating filters. New technology is going to find ways to deliver unwanted content. And parents are still going to have to keep an eye on their kids.

Some things never change.

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