S.F. bans filtering software

San Francisco rules against filtering the use of public Internet access terminals and risks funding

San Francisco Board of Supervisor ordinance banning Internet filtering software

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors Oct. 1 banned the use of filtering

software on all city-owned public Internet access terminals, saying the

technology blocks access to "useful and constitutionally protected information."

But the new ordinance could mean loss of federal funding for city libraries

providing such access.

The ordinance violates the federal Children's Internet Protection Act

(CIPA), enacted in April, which requires public schools and libraries to

use filtering software on all Internet-access computers if federal money

is used to buy the computers, pay for Internet access, services or internal

connections. The filtering requirement applies to visual depictions classified

as child pornography, obscene or considered harmful to minors.

That means the San Francisco Public Library system could lose about

$20,000 in annual E-Rate funding. The federal E-Rate program provides schools

and libraries with discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent for Internet access

and telecommunications infrastructure and for internal connections. More

than 95 percent of the 16,000 or so public libraries across the country

have benefited from E-Rate.

"For most libraries, [filtering software] is not feasible because it blocks important

information," said Maria Schneider, the library's public affairs director.

She said even the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper would

be blocked because of stories on homosexuality and pornography.

The library system, which has 26 branch libraries and one main facility,

hasn't had a lot of trouble regarding access. With Internet rules dating

to 1996, the library has had few complaints and its terminals are well-monitored,

Schneider said.

The city ordinance, she added, does not apply to terminals used by children

under age 13, and library policy requires a parent or guardian to accompany

a child under 9.

Another reason the library opposes filtering is because it's ineffective,

Schneider said. "We do feel these filters give parents a false sense of

security. The technology is imperfect," she said. She said each community

should decide whether it wants its library's terminals equipped with filtering

software.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's

Washington, D.C., office, said her organization wasn't aware of another

municipality taking such an action.

"As far as we know, this is the first local government that has stood

up to say, We want unfettered access to the Internet," she said. "We want

to make sure that everybody gets equal access. So for public schools and

for public libraries, we want you to offer that and if you have to sacrifice

the E-Rate program, so be it."

Contending CIPA is unconstitutional, the ALA and the American Civil

Liberties Union are trying to overturn the federal law and have a trial

set for Feb. 14, 2002. If the law is upheld, the San Francisco Library System

could lose federal funding for its 2002-2003 fiscal year.

Sheketoff said software filters discriminate against lower-income users

who may not get access to valuable educational and health sites because

it is blocked by software. "I'm gratified that they stood up to agree with

what we're saying which is this is an important right," she said.

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