Local eyes on Internet porn library decision

GILROY
– Years after a fierce conflict over access to sexually explicit
materials in Gilroy and other county public libraries ended with
filters being installed on some computers, participants in that
debate – filtering supporters, opponents and librarians all – say
they’ll be watching the U.S. Supre
me Court closely as it takes up the matter.
GILROY – Years after a fierce conflict over access to sexually explicit materials in Gilroy and other county public libraries ended with filters being installed on some computers, participants in that debate – filtering supporters, opponents and librarians all – say they’ll be watching the U.S. Supreme Court closely as it takes up the matter.

“It will be a sad day if the Supreme Court mandates filters on libraries,” said Connie Rogers, a former Gilroy City Councilwoman who helped establish the county library system’s current policy toward filtering and Internet use. “Libraries are in the business of providing information to anyone who wants to use it. That’s their job.”

Meanwhile, activists whose protests helped drive the county’s decision will also be keeping a close eye out on the nation’s High Court – although they say it’s a shame the decision has to end up there in the first place.

“My feeling is if the libraries had done the adequate thing – which was to protect minors from (porn) on a local level – the Supreme Court and the Legislature wouldn’t need to be involved in this,” said Gilroyan Sandi Zappa, co-founder of K.I.D.S., or Keep the Internet Decent and Safe For Kids, a group of parents that pressured local libraries to limit kids’ access to pornography.

The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide if public libraries can be forced to install software blocking sexually explicit websites – an issue Congress has struggled with as lawmakers tried to find ways to protect children from Internet pornography without infringing on free-speech rights.

The Supreme Court has already struck down or blocked Congress’s first two laws on the subject. It will now review the 2000 Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires public libraries that receive federal technology funds to install filters on their computers or risk losing federal aid.

On a direct basis, a decision concerning the specific law the Supreme Court will review won’t affect Santa Clara County libraries financially, acting County Librarian Julie Farnsworth said, because Santa Clara County doesn’t have enough very-low income areas to qualify for the federal technology funds that are tied to the filtering requirements.

“We’re watching it, but not because it will affect us financially,” she said. “We don’t have any money at stake, but of course we’re very interested in how the Supreme Court rules and how they view filters, those kinds of technical issues.”

By the time that law was passed, the issue of filters had already been the source of controversy in Gilroy, where ia few years ago the K.I.D.S. group pressured the county to limit minors’ ability to access sexually explicit material on library Internet computers.

At the time, county library computers allowed open, unfiltered access to the Web. But in response to the local debate – debate that drew attention from regional and even national media – the county’s Joint Powers Authority, a multi-jurisdictional board that governs the county’s library, instituted a countywide filter program and Internet use policy for its 10 libraries.

Under the policy adopted by the JPA, Internet computers in children’s areas at the libraries have filters called “CyberPatrol” or “Cybernot” that run automatically. On the adult side of the library, Internet users are given the option whether they choose to activate the filter or not when they sign in for a new use session, said Farnsworth.

Children are not mandated to use the filtered computers, and librarians do not actively monitor or police what patrons are viewing on the Web, for reasons Farnsworth said are both conceptual and practical.

“We have a strong philosophical belief that citizens have a right to privacy in pursuit of knowledge,” Farnsworth said. “The other reason is more practical – we can’t afford to have staff stand over everyone all the time.”

Viewing of pornography on library machines is dealt with as a behavior problem, Farnsworth said. If young children are seen viewing porn, librarians generally ask them if they need help, since they’re unlikely to have purposeful interest in such material.

“For young children it’s extremely unusual for them to be there for that purpose,” she said.

For teens and adults, librarians may ask patrons to cease viewing if it disturbs other patrons.

“We would only know if someone brought it to our attention,” she said. “We deal with it as a behavioral problem if we’ve had a complaint from another patron, just the same as if someone was arguing loudly.”

In the past, librarians have told The Dispatch that children accessing porn at the library has been a non-issue.

Farnsworth, who is filling in for recently retired longtime County Librarian Susan Fuller, said she is not aware of any complaints from staffers at individual county libraries to the library administration concerning the JPA policy – either with kids viewing porn or excessive blocking of non-porn materials through the filters.

Gilroy head Librarian Lani Yoshimura was ill Monday and could not be reached for comment. But Linda Glawatz, the children’s program librarian here, said she’s also unaware of any complaints since implementation of the JPA policy began.

“It’s working well,” Farnsworth said. “It strikes a nice balance between the rights of our citizens to gather information and the concerns of certain parents and adults who don’t wish to search the net without a filter.”

Rogers said the JPA’s decision was “a fantastic solution” to an important and delicate issue because it puts the decision where it should be – with the individual.

“I thought it was a brilliant compromise to allow those who want protection to get it, and those who don’t, don’t,” she said.

While she does not endorse pornography, censorship is also negative and how totalitarian regimes get started, Rogers said.

“Parents are the best ones to teach their children to avoid things that aren’t good to look at,” she said. “You don’t want to give up an important role like that to someone else.”

Zappa said the current policy isn’t ideal, but it’s better than what existed before. She noted K.I.D.S. suggested a number of different options to keep minors from accessing porn, such as parental consent for Internet use when applying for a card or “smart cards” where parents determine what level of access their children have.

“It enables parents to tell children they need to use the filters, but it’s not the best because children can still access pornography on the adult side,” she said. “It’s not the best, but it’s better than nothing.”

While she’s disappointed that the issue couldn’t be settled by standards in individual communities, Zappa said revisiting it could be good in one sense: it reminds parents that open access still exists – and to use caution.

“It allows parents that aren’t aware to realize children do have open access at the library …” she said.

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