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