Libraries sense snags with filters

June 26, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

Ian Seibert watched Wednesday afternoon as library patron Patrick Henry tried to prove a point.

Henry, 20, of Maugansville, punched some keys, and within seconds brought up a pornography site on a public computer in the Washington County Free Library.

As a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday, Seibert, the library's computer system administrator, had just updated the library's computer system to specifically filter out that type of Web site. Seeing the nude photos on the screen, he shrugged.

"No filter is perfect. I'm sure there is some adjustments that have to be made," Seibert said.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that Congress can make some funding contingent on whether a public library has Internet pornography filters on its computers. The ruling means libraries will have to install filters to receive federal technology grants.


Library directors in the Tri-State area said they were bracing for problems with money, staffing and other issues that could result from complying.

Computer users at the Hagerstown library said they understood why the rules were in place, but hoped the library would help out if they ran into problems.

Library Director Mary Baykan said that installing the filters, while necessary, might not be easy.

"It's going to be difficult and expensive," Baykan said.

She said some of her concerns include "what's going to be blocked, and how we're going to deal with it."

Baykan said the number of computer users is steadily increasing, and by the end of May, more than 9,100 had logged onto the computers at the library on South Potomac Street.

It costs Washington County $700 a year to pay for the license to use the filter, which Baykan said is not much. But costs could increase if the library needs to increase staff or, more likely, computer equipment because of the situation.

"If Ian's (Seibert) gone to lunch, and we can't turn the filter off, have we infringed on that man's First Amendment rights? Don't know the answer," Baykan said.

It is difficult for libraries to pick out one computer and "turn off" the filter. Seibert said it will take two weeks before a specific library computer can be singled out for adult Internet users who want to see blocked sites. Until then, the entire system will have to be filterless if one person wants to access blocked information.

Fulton County Library Director Jamie Brambley said Pennsylvania public libraries face state funding cuts of 50 percent. She said that represents about one-fifth of her library's budget.

Properly running a pornography filter is just another budget woe, Brambley said.

"It's going to be another expense," Brambley said. "I'd prefer it if they left it up to the community to decide for themselves ... what's appropriate."

But, she said, "If we don't follow through ... we won't receive our federal funding."

In West Virginia, it is unlikely anyone using a public library will be able to access an unfiltered Internet, said Martinsburg Public Library Director Pam Coyle.

The Internet comes to public libraries in West Virginia from a statewide server, Coyle said.

"The actual, practical, real-world, real-life incidents of what we're going to have to do are ... a little more complicated than what the ruling is like," Coyle said.

But Coyle said she has no problem cutting sex sites from the fare of Web surfers. She said customers use the Internet daily to look at pornography on public computers.

"We've had people sit there all day long and that's all they've done. ... That to me is a waste of a lot of money."

Some computer users said they understood the reasons for the filters.

"I think it's a great idea," said Mike Sheppard, 26, of Hagerstown. He said he sees children using computers, often without parental oversight, which could expose them to X-rated content.

Samuel Delee, 45, of Hagerstown, said he was in favor of filters. At the library Wednesday, he said he uses library computers for business research, and has never come across a blocked site.

But, he said, sites with "shock value" like nudity should be blocked. Others, such as a breast cancer Web site, shouldn't be blocked.

"I wouldn't want a woman that needs that kind of research not to get it," Delee said.

Henry, who had been looking for a new car, and who had tapped in to the off-color photos, said he thinks the filter at the Washington County library might be a little too sensitive.

While he had no problem accessing the auto sites he was looking at, he tried to download a movie trailer for "The Matrix Reloaded."

"It was categorized as sex," Henry said, so the site was blocked.

"I think it's a little over-filtered," Henry said. "You can't take away some (sites) without taking them all."

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