- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2000

If you were looking for a book for a school-age youngster and didn't have a good idea of what would be suitable, would you ask advice from (a) your local librarian, (b) the child's teacher, (c) a parent or (d) your U.S. senator? If you answered (d), then you're gonna love the Children's Internet Protection Act.

Passed recently by both the House and the Senate, and signed by the president, the measure says that any school or library getting federal funds for Internet access has to equip computers with software to block all “material harmful to minors.” There are only two problems with this approach: filtering software doesn't work well, and local control does.

It's easy to see the appeal of a computer device that would screen out all material that is “harmful to minors” while letting in all material that is not. But in a country as large as this one, there is vast disagreement about how to define that term.

What offends parents in Salt Lake City may not raise an eyebrow in San Francisco. Yet Congress thinks the same standards should be enforced in both cities, thus guaranteeing that people in one or the other, if not both, will be unhappy.

Even if we could all agree on what's inappropriate for kids, the technology to censor that material and nothing else doesn't exist yet — and may never. With 2 billion pages of stuff out there, and much of it changing every day, the task of keeping track of it, much less scrutinizing it, is simply overwhelming.

Lots of filtering software is available, but using it to protect children is like trimming rose bushes with a chain saw. Some stuff gets through that shouldn't, and some stuff doesn't get through that should. That's why a congressionally appointed commission on the subject declined to endorse mandatory filtering in the report it released in October.

An organization called Peacefire regularly tests Internet filters and finds them wanting. One widely used program, it reported recently, blocked access to a variety of innocuous fare — including the site of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition, a “Hillary for President” page, the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, an essay titled “What Is Memorial Day?” and a teacher's lesson plan on how a bill becomes law.

The home page of the American Association of University Women has been blocked by one software program — apparently because of a line offering “Hot Links of Interest to Women.” Hot? Women? Get that out of here!

One popular filter blocked the Web site of Jeffrey Pollock, a Republican who last fall ran for Congress in Oregon. That page included his statement on this very issue: “We should demand that all public schools and libraries install and configure Internet filters.” After seeing how filters work in practice, however, Pollock decided to re-evaluate his position.

Nobody wants 12-year-olds to be cruising hard-core pornography pages, but filters have been known to block sites offering information about AIDS, contraception, diabetes or breast cancer — which may be not only suitable but extremely valuable to young people.

In any case, the desire to protect children is no good reason for 535 busybodies congregated in Washington, D.C., to barge into every school and public library in America. Librarians have been dealing with problems like this for years, and unless you think they went into the field to corrupt innocent children, it's safe to assume that they are competent to deal with this one.

Even if they didn't care enough to try to keep kids away from vile words and images, librarians have to contend with parents and local elected officials, who most assuredly do. Different communities have different standards, and in their own facilities catering to their own children, they are perfectly capable of deciding what policy to adopt.

As it happens, there are ways to monitor and restrict what kids see without putting a paper bag over much of the World Wide Web. Many libraries give children instruction on how to navigate the Internet to maximize its education value. Terminals can be placed in plain view of librarians to discourage youthful patrons from getting too adventurous.

Another option is to allow children unfiltered access with parental consent. Some school libraries require students to promise in writing that they won't seek out certain types of sites — with punishment, such as loss of online access, for those who stray.

With this law, though, communities are allowed to experiment with only one approach, and if it doesn't work, they have to keep using it anyway. Before passing the Children's Internet Protection Act, Congress should have taken a Robert De Niro suggestion: Filter this.

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