Magazine article Information Today

MySpace.com and Library Filters

Magazine article Information Today

MySpace.com and Library Filters

Article excerpt

Deleting Online Predators Act

When I was growing up in Vancouver, Wash., I could see Mount St. Helens from the front window of our house. Unfortunately, I left home for college before the volcanic mountain (which had been dormant for many years) erupted 26 years ago the week I wrote this, so I missed the bird's-eye view of the spectacular event.

The issue of whether schools and libraries should filter the Internet has also been dormant for the last few years. The passage of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and its confirmation by the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to settle the debate, and filters-like it or not-have become an accepted part of library and school life. But the recent eruption of interest and concern about social networking Web sites such as MySpace.com has brought Internet filtering back to the front pages.

MySpace.com and other social networking Web sites allow individuals (including children) to create profiles, post photos, and establish blogs that are then shared with other MySpace users and are accessible throughout the Internet. A growing concern has emerged about sexual predators using these sites to locate potential abuse victims.

Congress introduced the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 (DOPA) in response to these concerns. The act would require schools and libraries to prohibit access to "social networking Websites or chat rooms through which minors may easily access or be presented with obscene or indecent material; (or) may easily be subject to unlawful sexual advances, unlawful requests for sexual favors, or repeated offensive comments of a sexual nature from adults."

The debate over filtering and CIPA highlighted the tension that exists between free speech and the legitimate need to protect children from obscene content and sexual predators. The right to free speech exists on one side of this tension, including the right to receive information, even if that information is sexual in nature. Courts have held that material that is considered obscene is not protected by the First Amendment and may be restricted by filters, censoring, or banning. However, the legal definition of obscenity is more limited than is often perceived. Material containing nudity, sexual discussion, or erotica may be considered indecent or offensive, but it may not be obscene. If it is not, it cannot be filtered, censored, or banned for adult library users.

A Search for 'D-I-N-S-E-Y'

But the legitimate need to protect children from adult-oriented sexual material is on the other side of the tension. This issue hit home for me when my son was using the Internet at a public library. He was searching for a Disney Web site, but he accidentally typed "D-I-N-S-E-Y" into the search engine. His search called up several adult and predatory Web sites that deliberately use misspellings of this nature as metatags. Luckily, the library's filter prevented any of these Web sites from actually being displayed.

A broader definition of obscenity applies to material that may be harmful to minors. This definition would allow libraries to filter, censor, or ban all legally obscene content and some adult-oriented, nonobscene sexual content from minors.

The challenge of the Internet is that it carries both obscene and nonobscene content, as well as content that may or may not be harmful to minors. Filters and other content control mechanisms can't always distinguish between protected and unprotected content. Courts have been very cautious about allowing restrictions that infringe on an adult's rights of free speech, even in the interest of protecting children. …

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