Jewish World Review July 1, 2003 / 1 Tamuz 5763
If you are reading this column, you aren't being filtered!
If you happen to be reading this column on-line, you may have an unfiltered computer to thank or, depending on your point of view, to curse.
The last time I criticized federal efforts to block pornography and other foul things that children should not see on the Internet, I received an unwelcome taste of government censorship.
A sympathetic reader informed me that, as an experiment, he tried to call up the column on a filtered computer.
Sure enough, the filter blocked access to my column.
The government censors, in this case, were anti-smut filters like those that the Children's Internet Protection Act requires all libraries to install on their computers in order to receive federal funding.
After Congress passed CIPA in 2000, court challenges held it in abeyance until the U.S. Supreme Court decided last week to ignore my advice and uphold the act.
Filtering programs offer a poor remedy for Web porn, I wrote back then. Either they don't work well enough to block total access to objectionable material or they work so well that a word like "breast," for example, can block access to important information about breast cancer.
Well, my examples of trigger words probably triggered anti-porn filters.
I got blocked.
Yes, fellow Americans, it happened right here in the good old U. S. of A.
Of course, filtering errors vary with individual filtering programs and with their settings. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation late last year found the six most commonly used filters incorrectly blocked 1.4 percent of health sites at their weakest setting and 24 percent at their highest.
Health sites that mentioned "condoms" or "safe sex" were blocked most often, from 9 percent at the weakest setting to 50 percent at the strongest.
Meanwhile, the amount of blocked porn increased only marginally, from 87 percent at the weakest level to 91 percent at the strongest.
Either way, if you're an adult, I would rather let you decide what sites you want to see, not the government or its mandated computer filters.
So would most librarians, according to the American Library Association, which opposed the filtering law. About half of the nation's libraries use some filters, says Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, although the filters are often only used in the children's sections. Somehow those libraries have managed the computer porn problem just fine without Congress' help during the 2 1/2 years that CIPA has been waiting to go into effect. No more.
Ironically, the belated CIPA has a marginal impact on Internet porn, but it widens the digital divide that federal funds were intended to close. CIPA will impose its burden mainly on people who depend on libraries for their computer access.
Ten percent of Internet users get access through a library, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites or Asians to be in that group. They also tend to be poor and frequent libraries that can least afford to reject federal funding in order to keep unfiltered computer access.
The high court's decision, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, agrees with the Bush administration that this is not a problem. Users can simply request that librarians disable the filters, he wrote. But that's not easy, librarians say, since filters tend to be installed systemwide, not switched on and off at individual computers.
In a separate opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested a new option for the law's opponents to take. If the filtering industry fails to come up with easier and better filters, the opponents might be able to file a new challenge.
ALA officials I interviewed last week bristled at that suggestion. They agreed with the goal but say the tactic might put their organization in the awkward position of backing a suit against one of their member libraries.
Of course, there's another possibility. Impatient citizens might tell their senators and congressmen to repeal CIPA and let librarians and local communities do what they do best, which is to manage their libraries.
You might want to express your feelings in an e-mail to Capitol Hill. But please watch your language. You don't want to get blocked.
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