Monday, January 10, 2005

RICHMOND — Lawmakers in Virginia will consider legislation that would require all public libraries to install filters on computers that would screen out sexually explicit Web sites.

“Protecting children from online predators must be a priority,” said Delegate Samuel A. Nixon Jr., Chesterfield Republican, who authored the bill. “It’s a sad fact that child exploitation is one of the fastest-growing threats. … Something needs to be done.”

Mr. Nixon said Internet filters are inexpensive, easy to use, and do not violate constitutional rights.

The bill is part of the Family Foundation’s legislative agenda for this year’s session, which begins tomorrow. The bill is similar to federal law that mandates that public libraries put blocking technology on computers as a condition for receiving federal money. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the use of anti-pornography Internet filters in public libraries.

Victoria Cobb, the foundation’s executive director, said the foundation recently received a call from a Henrico County parent who said her child had been exposed to “obscene” material at the local library.

“This problem is very real,” Miss Cobb said yesterday. “Our bill will bring Virginia into conformity so a child’s innocence is not taken.”

Miss Cobb said 40 percent of the public libraries in the state already use such filters.

The bill proposes that libraries that receive state funding put filters on computers to block child pornography, obscenity and material deemed harmful to minors. The bill’s chances of passing the House and Senate could not be determined yesterday.

Mr. Nixon sponsored the same legislation last year, but a House committee defeated the bill on a 7-11 vote.

Opponents of such legislation argue that it amounts to censorship, and relies on imperfect technology that can block legitimate sites on such topics as abortion or homosexual rights.

The American Library Association has opposed the measure.

“The whole technology approach requires computers to make subjective judgments that they’re incapable of,” said Carolyn Caywood, intellectual freedom round-table counselor for the association and branch manager of the Bayside Area Library and the Special Services Library for the Blind in Virginia Beach.

Another problem with blanket filtering is that most companies that produce the filters keep their lists of blocked terms secret, Miss Caywood said. While that is understandable, it is also troublesome because companies could allow their political, social or religious views to affect which words they consider inappropriate, she said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports

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