Let librarians handle internet access

If the word COPA brings to mind a Barry Manilow tune, then you are probably not a librarian.
    The Child Online Protection Act was passed by Congress to require local libraries, under penalty of losing federal funds, to install blocking or filtering software on their internet access terminals.  COPA is currently in limbo, thanks to the first worthwhile lawsuit the ACLU has brought in years.
    If there is or ever was a profession whose members embody common sense, it is librarians.  And then there are your Members of Congress, whose miss no opportunity to produce legislative cholesterol.
    So it is no surprise the federal government's attempt to regulate local libraries isn't COPA-setic with the professionals who run them.
    The ACLU's gripe is that the COPA amounts to censorship and that unlimited access to the internet is a constitutionally-protected right under the First Amendment.
    Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.  The First Amendment allows the publication of pornographic magazines, but it doesn't require libraries to subscribe to them.  But the COPA is bad legislation for different reasons it seeks to usurp local control from libraries and relies on software that is itself seriously flawed.
    The internet and much of its accompanying technology are still fledglings.  If the World Wide Web was television, The "I Love Lucy" show wouldn't have aired yet.  Attempts to regulate the new medium surpass the limits of prescience.
    Blocking or filtering software is designed to prevent a computer from accessing certain types of adult material.  Mostly, these programs rely on searching for certain forbidden words and known pornographic cyber-destinations.
    Good in theory perhaps, but in practice this type of software has been known to prohibit access to information to breast cancer or deny women the ability to shop for underwear online.  At the same time, as anyone who has ever been in a men's locker room knows, there are quite a few synonyms for "breasts."  Let's just say that with blocking software in use, it might be hard to locate a pair of headlights for your LeSabre.
    Another objection voiced by librarians about filtering software is that its makers keep it proprietary  that is, they won't tell exactly what it is that it blocks.    It largely depends on the philosophical bent of the manufacturer.  So some programs don't allow access to content that is not sexual in nature but nonetheless controversial, like witchcraft, abortion or homosexuality. There's no way to tell what the software will do until you buy it and try it.
    Getting back to those sensible librarians, virtually every library organization including the Connecticut Library Association oppose COPA and endorse instead an "acceptable use policy" for library internet terminals.  This means that, as with all their other materials, the local libraries can determine what is and what is not an appropriate use of their resources.  The librarians to whom I spoke said if someone was viewing objectionable material in full view, they would be asked to stop.
    Library directors Doug McDonough in Manchester, Dennis Lorenz in West Hartford, Mary Etter in South Windsor and Louise Berry in Darien all said they have experienced no problems with unrestricted internet access in their adult reading rooms.
    Berry noted the marvelous information capabilities of the internet, providing users the ready ability to apply to colleges, track investments and even allowing foreign-born nannies access to their hometown newspapers.
    My sister is a public library director in Pittsburgh.  In this city environment, she has has some problems with people walking in and using the computers for accessing girly pictures.  In her case, blocking software, flawed as it may be, is probably a necessary evil.
    Which is the crux of this issue -- local libraries should be left alone to set their own policies. Any librarian worth his or her salt can silence a chatterbox with a stern "shush." Maintaining decorum with the use of computer terminals is easily within their purview.
    The only folks immune to a librarians warning, it would seem, are the blockheads in Congress.  They like to hear themselves talk so much they have turned a deaf ear to those who are far more knowledgeable and better-equipped to handle whatever problems may arise from this new technology.


August 26, 1999