The Internet and Free Speech, Act 2 Even in California, Where High-Tech Is Everywhere, Full Access in Libraries Concerns Some

Article excerpt

Within a 50-mile radius of Cupertino's tile-roofed county library, there are dozens of companies whose sole mission is to make use of the Internet as fast and easy as possible.

On a recent weekday afternoon, children were lined up at terminals scanning everything from online databases to a well-known sports Web site. Should anyone seek or stumble into a site with obscene content, the only protection is a privacy screen that makes the image hard to see from an angle.

Yet even here in the heart of Silicon Valley, amid a culture that reveres technology and the Internet, this relatively laissez faire approach is under fire. It's a sign that Act 2 of the national debate over free speech and the Internet is under way. Though the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act as a violation of free speech last year, there remains considerable unease here in many communities in the United States about what children can find on the information superhighway. And those concerns could arise in more counties as a major federal effort to accelerate Internet access helps spread the Web. The search for money Applications are flooding into the new Schools and Libraries Corp., set up to administer as much as $2.25 billion in new subsidies to schools and libraries for Internet access, fees, and computer equipment. Indeed, with the funds available next month, more than 22,000 applications have been sent in already. Some call the subsidy a back-door tax that should be eliminated. Others, like Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, want the subsidies to go only to schools and libraries that would restrict content available to children. A vote is expected soon in the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which Senator McCain chairs. Analysts expect competing legislation to emerge, including a less-restrictive requirement that schools and libraries must simply evaluate ways to shield children to qualify for federal help. The issue is not so much new as it is persistent, an indication that even as Internet familiarity grows nationwide, little consensus has emerged over how to handle some of its content. "We looked for common ground, but frankly couldn't find any," says Barry Stenger, director of programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The American Library Association (ALA) favors letting libraries decide what, if any, restrictions they should adopt. While that's the official policy, the prevailing view among many librarians, including ALA president Ann Simon, is that filtering is "bad for libraries." Nonetheless, a variety of types of restrictions have been implemented at libraries around the country. Just north of Silicon Valley, in San Bruno, filters are in place. In Boston, there are filters on the terminals in the library's children's room. In conservative Kern County, Calif., some terminals are filtered and some aren't, a softening of an earlier universal filtering policy that led the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to threaten a lawsuit. There are filters in Austin, Texas. And in Spokane, Wash., an innovative policy requires children to get written permission from their parents before they're allowed to use the Internet at library terminals, which are not filtered. …


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