What do NASA’s Mars exploration mission, Super Bowl XXX and Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas) have in common? Though it sounds like the setup for a raunchy joke, librarians and civil libertarians aren’t laughing. All three subjects inadvertently fell victim to Internet filters intended to keep violent or sexually explicit material out of the hands of children.
And now, a rider attached to a federal appropriations bill passed in December mandates that all libraries and schools that accept federal funding must install content filters on their Internet-accessible computers or risk losing that funding. While supporters hail it as a useful tool, opponents say the new law infringes on many forms of constitutionally protected speech.
“Like many, many libraries across the country, we’re concerned about what gets over-blocked when you have filters, because they’re so fallible,” says Betty Ammon, director of the Missoula Public Library. Last year the library received between $2,000 and $4,000 in federal assistance, mostly in discounted telecommunications costs. “We feel really stuck in a mandate that can’t be done. It’s just not technologically possible.”
As the three examples illustrate, Internet filters are anything but infallible. In the case of the Mars exploration mission, an S-E-X letter sequence tripped the filter, as did the triple-X sequence in Super Bowl XXX. Congressman Armey discovered that his website was blocked because he often goes by the nickname Dick.
Librarians point to even more disturbing examples, such as blocked websites that instruct women how to perform breast cancer self-exams or teach gay teens how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. In New York City, school teachers discovered that their students couldn’t access any Native American websites. Though teachers were never told why, they speculated that the filter, installed at the server level, could not discern which tribes use the hallucinogen, peyote, in religious rituals, so it blocked all them all.
In most cases, users aren’t even aware that content has been withheld from them, says Judith Krug of the American Library Association (ALA). Krug is director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, one of several organizations that plans to challenge the new law in court. (The ALA challenged the 1996 Communications Decency Act in the U.S. Supreme Court and won in a 9-0 decision.)
“Librarians have made it a practice not to inquire as to what you’re reading, why you’re reading it and what you’re going to do with it,” says Krug. “It’s nobody’s damn business what you read but your own.”
Although the Missoula Public Library planned to apply for federal funding again this year, Ammon can’t say now whether they will or won’t, as they may wait for the outcome of any court challenges. The new rules aren’t expected to take effect before April.