Within a 50-mile radius of Cupertino's tile-roofed county library, there are dozens of companies whose sole mission is to make use of the Internet as fast and easy as possible.
On a recent weekday afternoon, children were lined up at terminals scanning everything from online databases to a well-known sports Web site. Should anyone seek or stumble into a site with obscene content, the only protection is a privacy screen that makes the image hard to see from an angle.
Yet even here in the heart of Silicon Valley, amid a culture that reveres technology and the Internet, this relatively laissez faire approach is under fire.
It's a sign that Act 2 of the national debate over free speech and the Internet is under way. Though the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act as a violation of free speech last year, there remains considerable unease here in many communities in the United States about what children can find on the information superhighway. And those concerns could arise in more counties as a major federal effort to accelerate Internet access helps spread the Web.
The search for money
Applications are flooding into the new Schools and Libraries Corp., set up to administer as much as $2.25 billion in new subsidies to schools and libraries for Internet access, fees, and computer equipment. Indeed, with the funds available next month, more than 22,000 applications have been sent in already.
Some call the subsidy a back-door tax that should be eliminated. Others, like Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, want the subsidies to go only to schools and libraries that would restrict content available to children. A vote is expected soon in the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which Senator McCain chairs. Analysts expect competing legislation to emerge, including a less-restrictive requirement that schools and libraries must simply evaluate ways to shield children to qualify for federal help.
The issue is not so much new as it is persistent, an indication that even as Internet familiarity grows nationwide, little consensus has emerged over how to handle some of its content.
"We looked for common ground, but frankly couldn't find any," says Barry Stenger, director of programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
The American Library Association (ALA) favors letting libraries decide what, if any, restrictions they should adopt. While that's the official policy, the prevailing view among many librarians, including ALA president Ann Simon, is that filtering is "bad for libraries."
Nonetheless, a variety of types of restrictions have been implemented at libraries around the country. Just north of Silicon Valley, in San Bruno, filters are in place. In Boston, there are filters on the terminals in the library's children's room. In conservative Kern County, Calif., some terminals are filtered and some aren't, a softening of an earlier universal filtering policy that led the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to threaten a lawsuit. There are filters in Austin, Texas. And in Spokane, Wash., an innovative policy requires children to get written permission from their parents before they're allowed to use the Internet at library terminals, which are not filtered.
Along with Congress and local school and library boards, the courts are getting involved. The ACLU and other organizations have taken the Loudoun County library system in Virginia to federal court to stop them from filtering, which they see as a violation of free speech.
Though filtering software has grown more sophisticated in recent years, many librarians see it as a sloppy tool at best. By restricting certain key words or specifically identified sites, it often blocks some material that no one would regard as objectionable. And with the steady growth of pornographic sites, it runs the constant risk of missing new, objectionable material.
But the fundamental opposition runs deeper and would prevail in many cases no matter how effective the filtering software. Santa Clara county librarian Susan Fuller reflects that deeper objection in defending the current county library policy this way: "It's the obligation of the person using the collection to decide how to use it. In the case of minors, it's the obligation of the parents."
Nonetheless, the county has established a task force to explore all options related to shielding children from parts of the Internet, or requiring parental permission. The chief advocate for limiting access in this county is an organization called KIDS (Keep the Internet Decent and Safe). "We want restrictions. Filtering is just one approach that others have used," says KIDS activist Cynthia Walker.
A parade of parents, grandparents, and one child spoke about full access to the Internet at a recent county library meeting. Most seemed genuinely perplexed why an institution long seen as a haven for children had become, in their eyes, a threat. Why guarantee children access to sites that include "images of women with ropes around their necks and worse?" asked San Jose resident Sherry Petersen. Even if filtering is imprecise, they argued, isn't that a small price to pay?
Other members of the community see that price as too steep. James Chadwick, speaking against restrictions, said if a perfect filtering system could be devised that prohibited only pornographic material, he'd support it. But because that doesn't exist, "for a public library that serves a vast diversity of interests to simply block [inadvertently] some material is morally objectionable. It's adopting the philosophy of a private [software] organization, over which the community has no control."
Those opposing open access say libraries have long restricted what they carry on their shelves. Librarians concede they have, but primarily for reasons of space and money. And in the cases where they have precluded materials they knew might upset patrons, that's a practice many seem eager to leave behind. The Internet gives them that opportunity, they note.
The wrangle over appropriate access could become more widespread as the new federal program takes shape.
Lisa Woodard, manager of the state office of technology initiatives, is preparing an application for $16 million in federal subsidies to help bring the Internet to schools in Alabama. "It's critical for us," she says, to get the funds in order to stay modern technologically. And although she opposes the filtering requirement, if it's imposed, she said she'd still seek the subsidies.