CYBERSHOCK: Library Censorship

Residents OF Tumwater, Wash., who visited their library May 13 found some unexpected reading material: picket signs proclaiming, "Our library: a place of learning or a forum for filth?" and "Libraries are for learning, not obscenity!"Rick Godderz, an organizer of the picket, told the local newspaper, The Olympian: "I've never advocated banning or burning books, but I feel like they've crossed the line this time." What was that line? The Tumwater branch of the Timberland Regional Library System had given its patrons access to the Internet.Godderz says he had walked by the two Internet-linked terminals and saw children looking at "lewd and obscene" material. He and other protesters want the library to deny children access to the Web. He has filed a complaint with the police and asked the Christian Legal Society for help in obtaining an injunction.Librarians at schools and public libraries across the country are facing a dilemma: neither paper and publication nor ink and information are now synonymous. In this day and age, if libraries are to fulfill their central mission of providing access to information, they must give the public admission to the World Wide Web. For many people, the library is the only way to get on the Web. The problem is that the Web is a package deal; librarians can't pick and choose items for their collections.Librarians have scrutinized software systems such as Surf Watch, Cyber Patrol, and 'Net Nanny that screen content on the Web, and many have found these systems wanting. All rely on content providers' willingness to mark a page as unfit for children.Last fall, during the Communications Decency Act debate, I tracked 12 "adult" sites to see how they had responded to the legal and social pressures.Five are now defunct. Of the remaining seven, three have toned down their content, using fewer graphic images, blurring breasts and genitals, or applying digital pasties. Four participate in Surf Watch-like protection systems. Three of the seven restrict access to paid subscribers, and two require paid membership in a service that verifies you are an adult when you sign up.That leaves only 2 sites out of the original 12 that don't limit access to graphic images by using software controls, financial restrictions, self-restraint, or some combination of the three. But when I checked these two sites right after the Tumwater protest, I found no protections and plenty of extremely graphic images."With 3,000 new Web sites a week, it would be impossible to keep ahead of the changes," Timberland director Thelma Kruse told The Olympian. "I would rather not promise some sense of safety we can't deliver."Nor is there likely to be a fail-safe system of protections soon. Last month a consortium of 39 technology and information companies unveiled a working version of the "platform for Internet content selection" (PICS).PICS would have the sponsor of every Web site fill out an on- line form about the site, then PICS would rate sites on a scale of one to four for violence, sex, nudity, and language. Parents, teachers, librarians, and businesses could block content at any level they chose, block unrated sites, or use a password to bypass blocks.The system has yet to prove its value. It again relies on voluntary participation, and a scale of one to four is not a very discriminating gradient. To be effective for libraries, PICS must not only weed out all inappropriate content, the system must avoid weeding out so much content that it becomes an onerous form of censorship.Libraries across the country are facing the same dilemma as Timberland -- and many are making similar choices. My sister is a librarian at a private school in Charlotte, N.C., a metropolis within the Bible Belt. If her students want Internet access, their parents must sign a permission slip that acknowledges the school can't screen content effectively and that the librarians can't individually supervise students using computers. She says the students have to learn to regulate themselves if they find they are somewhere they shouldn't be.That's a lot to ask of kids, particularly if they're teenagers and sex is involved. If we assume, however, that First Amendment protections apply even to materials many people find sexually offensive, and if we believe, as I do, that the value of the Web as an information source outweighs potential harm from pornography, we have little choice but to learn how to ask it of them.The world changes. Kids seem to mature faster and become sexually active earlier, so responsible parents have had to learn how to talk to kids about sex earlier. The world seems more dangerous, so we have learned to talk to them about inappropriate touching.Unless and until there's a fail-safe system that allows us to control what children see on-line without banishing them altogether from the Web or completely censoring electronically published adult material, talking to our children and building trust is the only option we have.As Kruse said, "We keep learning. We keep trying. But we want to keep in mind what a great resource this is." A resource I don't want our kids to have to do without.

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