Experts divided on Internet filtering legislation

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

NEW YORK — Experts disagreed on unfettered vs. filtered access to the Internet in public schools and libraries in discussing legislation like the Children's Internet Protection Act at a First Amendment Center forum last night.

CIPA, which goes into effect in April, “requires public schools and libraries to install blocking technologies on their computers to prevent children from gaining access to objectionable material,” noted Freedom Forum Ombudsman Paul McMasters, who moderated the panel.

Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging the law along with the American Library Association, quickly got to the disputed heart of the matter.

“This is not a law to protect children. This law requires blocking software for every single patron of the library. When people talk about this as a 'protect children act' they are fooling you. It is a law designed to require every single person who enters a library or a school to have access to their Internet blocked,” he said.

Chad Vignola, general counsel to the chancellor at the New York City Board of Education and self-described “bad guy on the panel,” disagreed.

“From our perspective, it is all about the children,” he said. “That's the basic judgment we made in deciding whether to filter or not. For us, that guides us in all our decisions.”

Even though the board actively lobbied against CIPA, Vignola said the board uses “filtering in the schools today and [thinks] that it is a matter for local judgment to be made.”

His problem with the act?

“The statute seems to make it difficult for us to make [filtering] judgments on an individual case-by-case basis. The board of education generally views the Internet as a curricular tool — obviously one that's got vast possibilities and implications [more] than a mere library. Still, it is our perspective that it is a tool and it's one that an educator has to make a judgment on every day,” he said.

Nancy Kranich, president of the ALA, agreed that local control was far preferable to government control, but pointed out that filtering is only part of the process.

“Filtering cannot take the place of parental involvement. Too often, places that filter think that they've done the trick — and in fact filters may do the trick for some. But in a public forum such as a library, filters just don't work,” she said. “They don't block all the bad stuff and they block far too much of the good stuff. Everybody in a community has a right to get access to the constitutionally protected information that they need.”

McMasters brought up the Supreme Court's landmark 1997 ruling ACLU v. Reno, which struck down the federal Communications Decency Act as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

“Might we not be discussing this law tonight if you and your colleagues had taken a bit different [tactic] in ACLU v. Reno and not touted filters as an alternative to the censorship proposed there, and are we in danger of that happening again with touting local control in the challenge to this law?” McMasters asked Hansen.

“There is irony to this point of course,” Hansen replied, acknowledging that the ACLU finds itself “in some instances touting blocking software” and in other instances “disparaging it.”

“I'd like to think ours is the more intellectually honest position, which has always been, 'We're opposed to the mandatory use of blocking software.' That's always been our position and it continues to be,” he said.

Andrew L. Shapiro, author of The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know, argued that filtering software does not violate adults' rights because it only denies them access to ” illegal material.”

The software blocks “adults from obscene material and child pornography, which, since they are illegal, people don't have a right to really,” he said.

But Hansen disagreed.

“You are giving the law so much more credibility than it deserves when you say, 'but of course only minors are going to be deprived of (material considered) harmful to minors and adults are only going to deprived of obscenity,” he said. “That isn't even close to being what is going to happen in the real world.”

Hansen, who as McMasters said has “batted a thousand” in his constitutional cases against the government, has other problems with the software as well.

“For virtually every blocking software that exists, the list of blocked sites is a trade secret. They will not tell the librarians, they won't tell the schools, they won't tell the principals, they won't tell the teachers, they won't tell the patrons what is blocked and what isn't blocked,” he explained. “So what we are requiring is the installation of a secret censorship system on every computer in every library in every school.”

But Shapiro, who called CIPA “unnecessary and a mistake,” refused to call the idea of a “secret censorship system” a “death knell” for the act.

“In characteristic good form, the opponents of the act may see more in it that is dangerous than meets the eye,” he said. “Clearly, there are justifiable and legitimate goals in protecting kids from certain kinds of materials.”

Still, like so many things, the issue sometimes comes down to money, Vignola said.

“(New York public schools) are starved for dollars. It is critical to us to ensure that those funds are there. Do we take a risk here in terms of those judgments or do we kowtow?” Vignola asked. “I'm hopeful that at least in certain ways Chris (Hansen) will continue to bat a thousand, but I might talk to him about how he does that. Maybe a little more narrowly than he hopes to.”

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