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. …