Magazine article American Libraries

Congress Is of Two Minds on Internet Censorship

Magazine article American Libraries

Congress Is of Two Minds on Internet Censorship

Article excerpt

The stage is set for a clash over Internet censorship when Congress returns from its summer recess this month. Shortly before adjourning Aug. 4 the House approved by 420 to 4 the "Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment" amendment to the telecommunications bill, which expressly forbids government Internet censorship. The measure conflicts with the Exon-Coats "Communications Decency Act," a controversial amendment to the Senate version of the bill that sets criminal sanctions of online obscenity and indecency (AL, May, p. 388).

The Washington Post reported that the House amendment, introduced by Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), received support from a wide range of groups across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way to the Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Cato Institute, as well as from the major commercial online services. President Clinton, who had threatened to veto the telecommunications bill, supported the measure in an Aug. 3 letter to lawmakers.

Lynne Bradley of ALA's Washington Office said that the House Cox-Wyden amendment is preferable to the Senate Exon-Coats measure, which ALA strongly opposes; however, she warned, it contains some major problems, particularly its endorsement of filtering devices that block out offensive materials. "Libraries in general and ALA in particular do not want to get into or endorse any policies where the government is regulating the free flow of information," Bradley told AL.

The ramifications of either bill for the library community are unclear, said Karen Coyle, technical specialist for the University of California's Division of Library Automation. She observed that the House amendment comes as a relief to most people concerned with free-speech issues, who consider it the "Internet-friendly" amendment. Especially heartening to libraries, said Coyle, is a "Good Samaritan" provision that protects providers who had made a good-faith effort to prevent users from encountering offensive materials online.

The question of liability is a major concern to libraries, particularly if the Senate's Exon-Coats amendment prevails. "Who's the liable party? Is the library itself liable?" asked Coyle. "The complication is that many libraries are government bodies, so the laws are applied differently." Filtering devices would take the liability burden off providers, Coyle said, but then "we wind up turning our selection process over to someone else, and that is not ideal."

The more important question, observed Coyle, is why, in libraries' concern over the Internet, "are we only focusing our attention on those materials that are controversial?" She reiterated Electronic Policy Information Center Director Marc Rotenberg's lament at the ALA Annual Conference (AL, July/Aug., p. 662) that librarian's are spending more time deciding what not to include in our collections than on what we should include.

A potential snag to the House bill is a separate amendment sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) that would criminalize some forms of online speech. The potential conflict between the two House amendments will have to be resolved in the conference committee when Congress returns from its summer break this month.

Anticipating Budget Cuts. OPM Eliminates Library

As part of an agencywide reduction in force, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management will close its library and lay off all four staff members, effective Sept. 29.

The Washington Post reported that layoff notices were sent to 294 OPM employees July 28. The layoffs follow the dismissals of more than 400 employees in a similar cost-cutting measure last year.

Head Librarian Leon Brody told AL that a reduction in force had been expected following recent Congressional budgetary actions. "The House had deleted $26 million from the agency's appropriation," he explained, and staff had assumed the Senate would be even more severe. …

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