Library Internet filter legislation moves through House

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2008

Alaska's public librarians may soon be required to make sure kids aren't looking at pornography while at the library.

David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

The House State Affairs Committee on Thursday passed 4-3 a bill that would cut state funding for public libraries that don't prevent patrons under 18 from looking at sexually explicit material on library computers - either by using Internet filter software to block offensive Web sites or by having computer screens watched by library staff.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said the law was a simple way to protect kids and was consistent with a federal child-protection law that requires libraries to use Internet filters to be eligible for certain kinds of federal funding.

There are about 90 public libraries in Alaska, and about 40 percent of the them do not have Internet filters, according to Keller.

"Parents protect their own computers at home, (they) protect their kids," Keller said. "I want to make sure they get some level of protection at the public library."

But critics said Keller's bill was an ineffective intrusion into local affairs by the state.

"There's a principle behind this I object to," said Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, who voted against the bill.

Juneau Public Library Director Barbara Berg agreed with Doll and added that there already was an effective monitoring system in place at the three city libraries.

She said her staff had to keep an eye on everything happening in the libraries, including computer usage. And the heavy use of the libraries' 58 or so public computers devoted to Internet use means there is a high level of self-policing by the library's patrons, Berg said. These computers don't have Internet filters.

"They'll come and tell if someone is doing something inappropriate," Berg said, adding that it was "infrequent" that library staff had to ask a computer user to stop using the Internet.

"Quite frankly, it's working well."

Keller said he had not been spurred to sponsor the bill because of any particular instance of a child accessing pornography at a public library in the state, but instead had been approached by the Alaska Family Council, a self-described "pro-family" group, to carry the bill.

An earlier version of the legislation required Internet-blocking filters that could be turned off when an adult was using the Internet for lawful purposes. The committee amended the bill to allow library staff to monitor a child's Internet use themselves or use a filter.

Library officials had said earlier that filters would be too expensive, but Keller said the bill allows for libraries to use free or inexpensive filters.

"My presumption is that librarians do care about our kids," Keller said. "I'm just saying, 'Hey, use some software out there to do your job.'"

Libraries at public universities would not be affected by the current version of Keller's bill, and the bill would not apply to those who used a library's wireless Internet access on their personal computers, an aide to Keller said.

Berg said filters provided a "false sense of security" while failing to protect kids from the Internet's dangers, such as online chat rooms with sexual predators. She said the best way to protect kids is to educate them on the Internet's dangers.

The House Finance Committee was the next scheduled stop for the bill.

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