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Congress passes Net filtering initiative

By The Associated Press

12.20.00

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WASHINGTON — Schools and libraries must begin using Internet filtering software next year to protect children from pornography or risk losing federal money — thanks to a mandate approved by lawmakers before they left town.

The requirement is raising concerns among free-speech advocates who say it violates the Constitution and, perhaps ironically, from software makers worried that filtering technology is not a cure-all for protecting kids.

"This is a mandated censorship system by the federal government," said Chris Hansen, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to sue in an effort to block the law.

After the law takes hold, "no adult anymore can read what they want at the library," Hansen said yesterday.

Supporters believe the law will withstand a court challenge and provide a reasonable way to protect children from Internet smut.

"We drafted it to make sure it was constitutional," said John Albaugh, chief of staff for Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., who helped push the measure.

At issue is the Children's Internet Protection Act, which was unexpectedly attached to a $450 billion federal spending bill Congress passed on Dec. 15 before recessing for the year. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law.

Any school or library that refused to install filtering software on its computers would lose vital federal funds for technology upgrades.

The measure's appearance in the larger spending bill, House Resolution 4577, surprised those who had been following the issue — some of whom didn't discover it until Dec. 18. Several versions of the mandatory-filtering plan had floated through Congress in recent months.

The ACLU has made successful challenges to similar laws passed to keep kids from seeing objectionable material online, including the Communications Decency Act, Children's Online Protection Act and several state measures.

But censorship concerns are only part of the argument against the measure.

Opponents also say the filtering programs don't work, blocking more Web sites than they should while letting some pornography sites through.

Recently, anti-filtering groups have shown top filtering programs to block out sites belonging to the human rights group Amnesty International, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and a digitized copy of the novel "Jane Eyre."

Supporters of the bill, including the office of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., acknowledge the programs aren't perfect but say that any protection is better than nothing at all.

The ACLU's Hansen disagrees.

"The First Amendment doesn't have a 'good enough' requirement as part of it," Hansen said. "Suppose we said it would be better than nothing for someone to go into Barnes and Noble and burn every tenth book. That sort of casual insensitivity to censorship is disturbing."

The legislation states that the filtering software can be disabled by a library administrator for adult use only for "bona fide research or other lawful purpose."

An official with the company that makes the most popular Internet filters also disagrees with the bill.

"Things that mandate specific technologies probably aren't the best solution here. Let the free market decide, and let us improve these products all the time," said Susan Getgood, a SurfCONTROL vice president, in an interview.

SurfCONTROL owns the two most-used filtering tools, CyberPatrol and SurfWatch. Its technology also powers America Online's Web filter.

"My chief criticism is that I don't think it's necessary because schools are already doing what they need to do to protect their students," Getgood said.

Some conservative groups also object to the bill because it takes local control away from communities who run schools and libraries and doesn't provide new money to buy or maintain the software.

Earlier this year, the town of Holland, Mich., decided in a local referendum not to use filters in their library. The federal legislation would override that vote.

The Clinton administration tried to soften the measure, offering more choice to communities, but faced stiff resistance in Congress. Presidential aides decided the concerns weren't worth jeopardizing the entire spending bill.

The ACLU plans to file its suit next year after President-elect Bush is in office.

Updates

Maine librarians first to join suit against Net filtering law
American Library Association, People for the American Way also to challenge federal law requiring that public schools, libraries install blocking software.  02.08.01

Free-speech, privacy advocates band together to fight new Internet filtering law
Groups say federal Children's Internet Protection Act places too much stock in unreliable technology that blocks legitimate sites.  01.26.01

Previous

Internet filtering plan misses mark, critics say
High rate of erroneously blocked sites highlights serious free-speech issues with software pushed by Congress, says head of anti-filtering group.  10.24.00

Congress close to vote on Internet filtering for schools, libraries
But groups opposed to proposal say it is a bad way to stop minors from viewing online pornography.  10.18.00

Senate passes competing Internet filtering proposals
Bipartisan panel now must develop compromise measure as lawmakers grapple with how to best monitor Web in schools.  06.28.00

Related

'Tools' fail as strategies to keep kids away from Net sex at libraries
Ombudsman Paul McMasters testifies before National Research Council that effort to combat 'harmful' material does more harm than good.  07.18.00

Arkansas legislator introduces Internet filtering bill
Measure would require public schools, libraries to install software to protect minors from harmful online material.  12.15.00

COPA commission expresses concern with Net filtering systems
'The safety of our children does not come at the expense of the First Amendment,' concludes commission member Al Ganier.  10.23.00

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