June 27, 2003

Today Porn, Tomorow News or Opinion

I can understand why the guardians of public morals don't want library patrons surfing teen bestiality sites while kids are Googling their book report at the next computer. Sheesh, I don't want to see that stuff either.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I stopped into an Internet shop (80 cents an hour, by the way, for DSL access) to check email and found the desktop littered with what appeared to be the remains of a Web orgy. I felt like I needed a shower just dragging those JPEGs to the trash folder.

Although I've never seen anyone - adult or teen - with a screenful of porn in my local library (where I sometime go to write during periods of prolonged blockage), I've no doubt they do. After all, people will, won't they?

But, like so many other journalists, I am not comforted by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on June 23 that could force libraries to filter Internet access.

Mark Glaser of the Online Journalism Review asks a question that should concern all journalists, especially newspapers because they are increasingly relying on electronic distribution: "Who polices these software controls? Anyone with an agenda."

It only takes a small dash of liberal paranoia to imagine certain small-town librarians bowing to pressure from conservative political or religious groups and moving beyond porn filtering to blocking news or opinion that is deemed distasteful or "not appropriate."

If you've been reading about this issue at home or at work, you may think the issue of public Internet access is one that is rapidly becoming nearly moot as home computer use grows, but according to the Commerce Department 10 percent of Internet users gain access through a public library, many of them poor.

There is a simpler solution to the dilemma of providing access while placing true porn (not, for example, sites that provide abortion information to teenage girls) off limits. Most libraries require computer users to log in with their library card numbers. If someone is caught looking at or downloading porn, boot them out of the library, take away their card and don't let them reregister. That's the penalty for someone who violates other library standards, such as stealing books.

The a new report done by the Electronic Freedom Foundation shows the how capricious and inaccurate Web filters can be. Here's one point from it: "Schools that implement Internet blocking software even with the least restrictive settings will block at a minimum tens of thousands of web pages inappropriately, either because the web pages are miscategorized or because the web pages, while correctly categorized, do not merit blocking."

Unless the news industry and other freedom of information advocates can prevent Congress from forcing libraries to install filtering software, someday a newspaper may find that its series on teen pregnancy or prostitution is deemed "inappropriate" for public consumption.

 Online Journalism Review Justices Put Access to Online Information in the Wrong Hands
 Electronic Freedom Foundation Internet Blocking in Public Schools

Posted by Tim Porter at June 27, 2003 07:02 AM