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TECHNOLOGY | Q&A

Standing Up to the Law

Library system director says the Children's Internet Protection Act is folly.

April 01, 2002|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It all started with a banned book.

Peter Hamon remembers the day "The FBI No One Knows" arrived in his hometown of Scottsbluff, Neb. The book, which was critical of the federal agency, caused a brouhaha in the 1950s among members of the John Birch Society, which pressed for library records to identify anyone who had checked it out.

Suddenly, reading a book became a risk. "It was a terrible time of mind control," said Hamon, who now is director of the South Central Library System in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin libraries are part of a group of plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The act requires libraries and schools that receive federal "e-rate" grants to install filtering software to block access to pornography and other material.

The trial began last week and is set to conclude in the next few days. A decision from the court is expected by the end of May.

The government contends that because printed pornographic materials are not in many library collections, there is no reason online obscenity should be available.

But Hamon, who testified against the act last week, said that using filtering software in public libraries is just another form of censorship, not so different from the book controversy of his childhood.

"This case reminds me of those times," Hamon said. "It wasn't right back then, and it's not right now."

Question: What is the modern role of a library and a librarian, given that the Internet has brought a universe of information into the home?

Answer: It is a universe, but it's filled with misinformation and can be confusing to navigate. Librarians help organize and find information--not only what's on our shelves, but also what's in other locations and on the Internet. If it's online, we'll point to things that are legitimate and accurate. If you need information on just about anything, we either have it or we'll get it. That's our job.

A library is not only based on the physical collections we've got, but on being a part of the community. We have a lot of rural communities in our system, from our capital city, Madison, with a population of 200,000, down to 300-person towns. Each community wasn't seen as complete until it has a library.

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Q: Why would a bunch of libraries in the Midwest get involved in this particular case?

A: We knew that this case was going to have a major impact on our future. For a long time, we couldn't afford to connect our libraries [to the Internet]. To go to our northernmost cities, just getting a dedicated 56-kilobyte line cost us $1,800 a month. For a lot of little communities, it was out of the question.

You can't turn to the big commercial Internet providers for help. A lot of them won't bring high-speed connections to a small community because they can't make a profit.

For someone to use AOL, it's a long-distance telephone call. Imagine paying a long-distance fee just to check your e-mail. For these communities, the library is their only means to getting a high-speed connection. We need the e-rate money to help pay for it.

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Q: Why fight the Children's Internet Protection Act? The federal government's position is that CIPA is designed to prevent kids from being exposed to sexually explicit material.

A: This law doesn't really protect kids. If they tried to pass a law that had to restrict access for just children, they might have succeeded. Of course, we will always try to protect children. If they insist on going to places [on the Internet] that are unacceptable, then we turn to their parents. We're not always going to be successful, to be honest. But we try our best.

This law, though, is about restricting access for everyone, including adults. That's what we disagree with.

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Q: Why not use filters?

A: They're technically ineffective. Even when sites are blocked, who makes the decision on what information to keep and what to block? People won't be able to get the information they need because they won't know what's been left out.

There are a lot of kids who need to find out things. During the testimony in the trial, we learned about a girl who wanted to know about STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]. It was a case of her wanting to know, "If there's a rash and it looks like this, what could it be?"

That happens all the time in libraries. People want their privacy. When you block information, they have to come ask someone instead of having the tools to do the research themselves. It's mortifying.

If a group tells you what you can read and think, it's not right. It isn't up to the government to tell you what to think, and it isn't for me to tell you what to think. That's up to you.

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Q: Do any of your sites use filters?

A: We have three libraries that filter the terminals in their children's rooms. Even in those cases, the libraries are perfectly willing for a child to come out and use an adult terminal.

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