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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SCREENING ROOM: The 'privacy screens' San Jose libraries currently use for dealing with adult material are designed to fit over monitors and block visibility to anyone but the user.

An Unsexy Truth

Myths and misconceptions in the debate over library filters

By Marianne Messina

WHEN the San Jose City Council rules committee wanted efficacy studies for Pete Constant's newly introduced proposal for Internet filters in the San Jose Public Library system, it sent library director Jane Light scrambling. Councilmembers asked her to research filter implementation for a Nov. 14 meeting. "Oct. 24, that was the first I knew about it," remembers Light.

She recalls having roughly two weeks to complete and compile the research: She provided a study of the filtering that occurs at other local libraries (not much), and an estimate of what the filter system would cost to implement ($284,000). She contrasted that with the federal "E-rate" dollars (grants for electronic services) the library would earn by complying with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requirements—requirements that include filters on adult material.

Contrary to a common misperception, it's not illegal not to comply with these CIPA requirements. It's just not going to earn you any federal largess— which isn't actually so large, amounting to between $30,00 and $35,000 in additional money, according to Light's estimate. In a 2007 Florida State University library survey conducted annually, roughly 36 percent of libraries surveyed said they did not apply for the federal E-rate discount due to CIPA filtering requirements—a marked increase from 2006.

Light views her research for an upcoming January meeting, which included pouring over reports with SJSU police to determine the frequency of lewd behaviors and their connection to viewing Internet porn in the library, as an ongoing process. "It's more of a status report," she says.

Councilmember Constant doesn't see it that way. He expects to push for a yea-or-nay decision on filters at a January meeting, frustrated by what he considers staff delays. "There's a difference between dropping the ball and dragging your feet," Constant said. He says feels pretty confident of carrying a vote on filters come January.

Much of the debate on public library filters locally has centered on the issue of pornography, with tittering all around. Because the policy was partly written by the San Jose–based Values Advocacy Council (motto: "A Voice for Christian Values"), with a little help from the Arizona-based Christian-ministry group Alliance Defense Fund, it can seem like a fringe issue, even a joke.

The American Civil Liberties Union isn't laughing. A spokesman for the Santa Clara chapter laid out the chapter's opposition to the proposal at a Dec. 12 Library Commission meeting. And the ACLU of Northern California has also taken an interest in the proposal. Technology and Civil Liberties Policy director Nicole A. Ozer warns that "the Constant proposal, if implemented, could infringe on constitutional rights for a variety of reasons."

In addition to questions with the proposal's language, Ozer says, "the proposed policy does not provide adults with their Constitutional right to obtain unfiltered access."

In Search of a Lawsuit

At the Nov. 14 meeting, City Attorney Richard Doyle established that a 2003 Supreme Court decision "opined that a requirement of Internet filters are [sic] legally permissible." At the same time, Doyle cautioned the council that there might be First Amendment legal concerns. First Amendment experts discuss the "unresolved" 2003 decision as so many legal gray areas in search of a lawsuit. In fact, a First Amendment case involving several patrons and a rigid library policy, Sarah Bradburn v. Northern Central Regional Library District, is currently working its way up the court chain and set for bench trial in June. That complaint cited the library's "configuration of its SmartFilter software" as part of the problem. In much the same way that merely having a filter doesn't assure CIPA compliance, there's having the filter and then there's implementing the filter, which is probably why Attorney Doyle also recommended "we would want to work with library staff to develop a policy.""You kind of have to decide what your acceptable use policy is first," says librarian Maryam Phillips, "then find the software that does that."

Phillips, who configures the Websense filter for the Montgomery County Library and Information Network Consortium, makes sure the filtering doesn't conflict with First Amendment rights. "We are cognizant of the fact that adults need the ability to browse unrestricted."

She also says she doesn't have any problems with the software and its maintenance: "You can design networks so that certain privileges are based on certain user names." And when First Amendment issues come up, "We literally have reserved some user names that are unfiltered—these can be assigned to someone who is adamant with 'I'm an adult and I have a right.'"

User, Not the Tool

According to software experts, libraries don't always take full advantage of the software's versatility. This was apparently the case with the NCRL library system, ironically users of a versatile software, Secure Computing's SmartFilter. Though SmartFilter can, somewhat uniquely, be fine tuned to make exceptions within generally blocked categories—for example, exceptions for blocked sites with educational focus—Shannon Cole with Secure Computing reports that customers don't typically configure their systems to that level of sophistication.

"They're choosing a default policy and it's working for them," says Cole.

Software makers also find themselves debunking a lot of myths about filters.

"There's a misconception that we're blocking stuff," says Websense's senior manager of public relations, Cas Purdy. "All we're doing is categorizing. We provide basically an automation platform, so that the library can enforce the rules that they already have." Cole also reports that when users see a blocked screen, "they perceive that we're globally blocking it. Everyone's really responsible for their own blocking and allowing." So in theory, a library could install filtering and then block very little content.

In keeping with this public misperception, the proposal currently before the Council calls for a circuitous, tribunal-like route of written requests, conferences ("a team of three library employees") and interventions by "software providers" to get a site permanently unblocked. And after this permission pingpong, the proposal anticipates a judgment call by "the provider" that "will submit its decision to the library team in writing with reasons for its decision. The provider's decision is final."

"Wow, that's interesting," says Purdy. And not, her tone implies, the good kind of interesting.

Cole points out that for a provider to make changes in category definitions to accommodate one library's exceptions wouldn't make sense. "We have to adhere to it [our definition] because it affects our entire customer base. You can override that locally."

Save My Kids

Interestingly, this fictional "provider" comes in language that reflects a certain longing that some paternal overseer can ensure the safety of innocence. And beyond the melodrama sometimes enacted at City Council meetings, there are real parental concerns behind the filtering proposal.

The King library downtown, co-funded and operated by San Jose State University, does experience its share of behavior problems that may or may not be directly connected with what people are watching on computers. But while everyone's parsing the numbers to determine how effective filters will be against this type of behavior, they'll have to subtract out any SJSU student offenders, because the city's contract with the university ensures students unrestricted Internet access. The SJSU University Library Board recently affirmed that position is not negotiable.

Meanwhile, this "secondhand porn" problem, as Constant calls it, is much less a concern in the branch libraries patrolled by the city. "Maybe a couple of cases over the past three years," says San Jose Police Department's Tom Sims. Sims says the Police Department doesn't have an opinion on the filtering solution. But he did add that the push to filter "is not City Council putting this forth but a certain organization putting this forth before City Council and their concern is adult pornography."

Card Checks

Constant's proposal also requires that the record of a child's book borrowing and Internet visits be made available to parents on request. The library doesn't currently keep those histories, and it is Light's assessment that such a change in the way the library stores data would be global—keeping records on children would mean keeping them on adults. In point of fact, San Jose Public Library does conduct affairs in a quaint, neighborly, and yes, old-fashioned way. In spite of millions of users, it doesn't track people much, relies on the honor system for ages, and doesn't have even honor-system ages for about 20 percent of its users.

Maybe after weighing the costs, the effectiveness and the alternatives to filters, the citizens of San Jose will still consider filtering reasonable, particularly in children's areas, where computers are currently unfiltered (though computers do open through a special children's page that directs them to age-appropriate resources). Or maybe the value placed on San Jose Library's informal, honor-based environment (plus the cost of changing it) will outweigh the partial (by all accounts) security afforded by the techno-surveillance mentality. But in a debate clouded with so many misconceptions and faulty info, let's hope the facts will out.

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