New bill poses old censorship questions

by Emily Dalnodar

Imagine Internet software that performs parenting functions: monitoring what children are allowed to see, learn and explore. Imagine this parent is manufactured by a private corporation with its own capitalist agenda.
Now imagine it’s against the law not to have these parents.
This is what the federal Internet School Filtering Act, S. 1619, proposes. The bill, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on February 9, would require all elementary and secondary schools and all public libraries to acquire Internet filtering devices before receiving federal Internet subsidies.
While several different filtering systems are on the market, their basic functions are the same: to block access to Web sites containing questionable material. Most products use keywords to block access to certain Web sites, such as “breast” or “sex”. But that same program would also block sites containing information on poet Anne Sexton or breast cancer.
Since the software isn’t 100 percent reliable, it blocks potentially valuable information. And since flaws still exist, the filter might not block a seemingly innocent Web site on cheerleading containing some pretty racy material.
In fact, some devices not only block out pornographic material but also block sites providing information on self-awareness, spirituality and holistic living, for example.
Of course, a teacher, librarian or parent can override blocks or create their own once they own the system, said Bryan Wampler, public relations officer for NetPartners who manufactures the Websense filter. But many complain that the systems are too technical or cumbersome to self-regulate.
While it’s unclear exactly where the University’s libraries fall under this bill, if at all, administrators and faculty aren’t about to purchase filtering systems just yet.
“As (the bill) applies to an academic library, it flies in the face of everything they stand for,” said Chris Loring, University associate librarian. “I don’t believe the bill will be applied to us, but one never knows.”
The bill only calls for libraries to acquire one such filter, leaving other computers open to all possibilities. But some smaller libraries only have one computer, thus limiting adults from viewing potentially informative material.
Some say the issue isn’t about whether or not adults have access to information, but whether the government has the right to censor information at all. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional, a bill which attempted to curtail free speech on the Internet to protect minors from indecent material.
“Publicly supported libraries are government institutions subject to the First Amendment which prevents them from restricting information based on viewpoint or content discrimination,” said Joyce Kelly, a spokeswoman for the American Library Association.
While the association doesn’t have authority over the nation’s libraries, it’s members strongly recommend finding alternative measures to deal with potentially questionable Internet material, Kelly said.
Rachel Plute-Santos, librarian at St. Anthony Public Library, said she’s has never had a problem with children looking up pornographic sites. Most children come in to work on school projects, she said. When the Web sites aren’t educational, they are usually about popular public figures or musical groups.
But what about pornographic material popping up on innocent Web searches?
“If you type ‘American Girl’ (a particular doll manufactured in Wisconsin) in a search engine, you can imagine what comes up,” said University Ph.D student Gail Ghere, who’s 10-year-old daughter, Shannon, uses the Internet frequently.
Ghere doesn’t think mandatory Internet filtering is necessarily a good thing. She said she realizes kids of different ages need different sorts of information, which filtering might block.
Her solution is to parent Shannon herself by being present while she’s surfing the Web. Once Shannon finds a site she likes — usually Beanie Baby or Nickelodeon-related — she feels comfortable leaving the room. “We become the filter,” Ghere said.
Ghere’s system is the one recommended by the Hennepin County Library Board. Their policy on a children Internet usage states: As with other library materials, parents and legal guardians concerned with their children’s use of the Internet should monitor their use.
But because parents cannot always be present at the libraries, and because parents are not always as computer-savvy as their children, the library board has compiled a list of search engines geared towards children. These search engines do essentially the same things as filters, but are free and optional.
“We believe parents and guardians are the only ones who can control the content. We inform the parents so they can do this,” said Penny Johnson, Kidlinks project manager for Hennepin County Library.
The Minneapolis Public Library takes the same position. They do not filter their Internet access, either, and so far the only reported problem is long lines waiting to get online, said Kristi Gibson, the library’s public affairs coordinator.
Congress will reconvene in January to rehash, among other things, the Internet School Filtering Act. In the meantime, the computer industry and the Internet continue to grow and change in the quest for improvement. Maybe by the time the bill hits the table the industry will have solved the problem itself, cancelling the bill’s very necessity.
“The Internet is the newest information tool, so there’s going to be some fear in it, just as there was when TV first appeared,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to restrict other people’s interests.”