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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[April 17, 2002]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

There's Nothing Naughty About Pasta Primavera: Librarians Become The Thought Police

Picture this scenario: You're in your city's public library, using one of their computers while your spouse is upstairs checking out books on furniture refinishing, since you're finally getting around to working on grandma's antique dining room table. You're taking advantage of the library's broadband Internet connection, and you decide to look up some information on the Kama Sutra. The Web site is blocked by the library's filtering software. Both you and the person next to you, who is surfing for chicken breast recipes and is finding them blocked, approach the librarian. "Can you unblock this Web site, please?"

The librarian gives you a hard stare. "Why do you want to view that site?"

You begin to stammer, not quite believing what you're hearing. "Uh, my spouse and I are going away this weekend to a romantic inn, without the kids, and"

The person who wanted the chicken breast recipes retreats after overhearing your interrogation, settling on a nice pasta primavera, instead.

After all, there's nothing naughty about pasta primavera.

Sound far-fetched? It's a scenario to which you can shortly look forward if Congress passes the Children's Internet Protection Act. This Act, Congress' third attempt to pass some sort of "decency" law with regards to Internet access in a publicly funded library, is in the process of being challenged by a raft of individuals, from the American Library Association, individual librarians (always strong proponents of the right to access whatever information one chooses, and consistent foes of any type of book banning) and civil libertarians.

The creators of the CIPA were a bit craftier than on the two previous attempts at similar legislation (which demanded all libraries filter "objectionable" material for everyone). After having the first two versions, The Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act, struck down as unconstitutional, the third attempt does not mandate that libraries install filtering software -- it only mandates it for libraries that wish to receive federal aid (in other words, libraries cannot be criminally penalized, as with the two previous acts, but government money can be revoked). As few libraries earn the funds they need for their day-to-day operations from overdue book fees (unless it's the library that I patronize, as the last book I returned on time was Curious George in the first grade), federal library funds are a must, and most libraries will be forced to comply in order to survive.

Don't get me wrongthoughts of the kind of people who go to a public library to surf porn make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You won't catch me inviting them over for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres and I stand far away from them on elevators. But the truth of the matter is that a tax-paying adult has a right to view what he or she chooses in a government-funded building, as long as others are not forced to look at what's on the screen and he or she is not disruptive or otherwise breaking the law. I have no problem with filters on computers in the children's section of the library, as long as someone is available to override blockages by this extremely imperfect technology when it blocks, for example, a Web site informing a child how to cope with parents' divorce, or the mating habits of the fruit fly. I don't believe that children should have free reign to surf whatever they choose on the Internet -- there's an awful lot of harmful and repugnant stuff on the Web and kids seem hugely attracted to the worst of it -- but I do take the radical position that parents are responsible for monitoring their kids' Internet use, not the local librarian. And I take extra exception to the thought that the local librarian should, by default, be forced to monitor what you and I are surfing in the library.

Filtering software is a far from perfect thing, and often objectionable sites are not blocked, while sites such as HIV/AIDS awareness are. In a classic case of filtering software gone awry, AOL's former filtering software completely disallowed use of the word "breast," forcing breast cancer patients in supportive chat rooms to refer to themselves as "hooter cancer patients."

One of the biggest problems with this type of software, and one that might ultimately work against the Children's Internet Protection Act, is that the criteria regarding which sites to block are made by the corporations that produce the blocking software, and are thus considered by those companies "trade secrets." This practice means that the courts have been unable to scrutinize the filtering software, the primary component of the CIPA, in detail, and judges have been traditionally wary of imposing any law whose basis is "a private secret."

The second extremely unsavory component of the CIPA involves the fact that an adult over 18 can make a request to a librarian to have a site unblocked, but the librarian must first question the patron to determine that his or her reason for visiting it is for "bona fide research." In other words, expect to get quizzed by the librarian as to exactly why you want to view Cosmopolitan magazine's Web site or learn about a new prescription drug for cold sores (caused by the Herpes Simplex I virus, and that sounds a bit racy, doesn't it?) You'd better have a very good reason for wanting to view those sites, or you won't be allowed to access them.

So instead of all that hassle, just go home and read something wholesome, like a Bobbsey Twins adventure or a biography of Lassie. Otherwise, you'll go blind and grow hair on your palms.

Anyone who can think of anything inappropriate about pasta primavera should e-mail the author at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com. You should also consider seeking professional help.

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