Limiting Internet access

Local libraries consider impacts of porn-blocking law

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2001

Juneau's schools and libraries are just learning about a new federal law that requires them to filter Internet sites for obscenity and child pornography if they want to get certain federal funds.

The Juneau Public Libraries may have the financial freedom not to follow the law. The city is still researching what funds would be lost if the libraries don't filter the Internet.

One criterion that triggers the law's requirements, a federally funded discount on telecommunications access, has been worth only $7,000 to the city libraries over the past four years combined, said libraries director Carol McCabe.

"Our Internet service isn't dependent on federal funds. Ours is basically locally funded," McCabe said.

"We have the option of saying we have something else in place, something that has worked for Juneau for years," she said, referring to a policy against reaching sexually explicit sites on library computers.

The Juneau School District enjoys a roughly $60,000 federally funded discount on its telecommunications services, former technology director Dale Staley said. But only about $3,000 of that is for Internet access.

Of the telecommunications federal funds, school districts and libraries that don't comply with the law would have to give up only that portion for Internet access, said David Crane, a staffer on the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

But school districts also would have to give up certain other federal education funds, including those for technology training, he said. Noncomplying libraries may lose some other federal funds, he added.

School board President Mary Becker said the district wouldn't want to lose federal money.

"I'm pretty sure we would comply to keep the funding, and we would want to keep kids from porn," she said.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, passed Dec. 15 as a rider to a large budget bill, refers to blocking obscenity and child pornography for minors and adults, and other "harmful" material for minors. The law allows schools and libraries to set their own criteria for what to block, after holding a public hearing.

"If it's stuff they're not allowed to look up at school anyway, I don't think there's anything wrong with them not being able to look it up," said Juneau-Douglas High School sophomore Lev Tobias.

But some people are concerned about freedom of speech, loss of local control and a technology that might not work well.

Juneau School Board member Alan Schorr said free access to materials is best for a free society in the long run, and the schools can rely on students' judgment and adult supervision of Internet use.

Schorr, a former university librarian, said the district should take the least offensive and least restrictive option in complying with the law.

Juneau's public libraries have a policy against Internet users viewing sexually explicit sites. The school districts forbids viewing obscene or "inappropriate" sites. School librarians said it's hard for users to break the rules without being noticed because the computers are out in the open.

"Right now our librarians and all of our tech people and anyone who works in the computer labs do the supervision," Becker said. "They are just very careful the kids are not where they shouldn't be. But it's very labor-intensive. Filtering would take the stress off supervision."

Filtering is a slippery slope, said Daniel Peterson, a Juneau-Douglas High School senior on the school board.

"When you're aiming to filter certain types of sites it might catch other sites that have nothing to do with pornography," he said.

That might not happen so much anymore, according to one company.

Unlike older systems, which were triggered by key words in an Internet site, most current filters block Internet sites whose content has been reviewed by the filtering company, said Kelly Rodnon, marketing manager for 8e6 Technologies of Orange, Calif., which filters the Internet for about 3 million students nationwide.

That eliminates the problem of blocking innocuous sites, such as for breast cancer, she said. On the other hand, no company can review the roughly 35 million Internet sites, or keep up with all the new ones.

"That's our challenge, not only us but everyone else," Rodnon said.

That challenge also makes it hard for local authorities to control the filter.

"It takes it beyond local control because the filtering company decides what it will and will not block in many cases, rather than locals, and blocks valid sites," said city librarian McCabe. "And a persistent hacker can get around filters, so I think it's a false sense of security to rely on filters."

The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to challenge the new law in court. Software that blocks the Internet "inevitably restricts access to valuable, protected speech," the organization said in a news release last month.

Micah Swafford, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, the Oklahoma Republican who co-sponsored the rider, said the Congressional Research Service has said the law will hold up to any constitutional challenges. That's because the law involves only Internet access that is federally funded, she said.

The federal government would pay for the filtering software, Swafford added. The software for a school district the size of Juneau's could cost about $12,800, plus a $7,500 annual fee to allow daily updates, Rodnon said.

The Anchorage School District has used filtering software for obscenity and pornography from 8e6 Technologies for about a year, said district technology director Norm Holthouse.

He said it has worked well, but the district has had to unblock 50 to 75 innocuous sites the company had blocked.

About 90 percent of school districts in Alaska have filters, said state Department of Education spokesman Harry Gamble. The telecommunications discount is worth about $12 million a year to Alaska's schools.

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