In February, residents of the predominantly Republican town of Holland, Mich., were faced with a local ballot measure that would have required Internet content filters (like Cyber Patrol, SurfControl, etc.) to be installed on the town library’s public computers to protect children from harmful material on the Internet. The proposed ordinance drew a great deal of attention, including some $42,000 in pro-filter campaign money contributed by two noted conservative groups, the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Despite the well-funded push for filters, however, Holland’s residents decided against mandatory library filtering, defeating the ballot measure by a 55-to-45 percent margin. They clearly voiced their opinion about how they wanted their local library run.
Incredibly, a number of congressional Republicans, who presumably favor local control of public schools and libraries, are now proposing legislation that would effectively overturn the local and democratic decision of Holland’s citizens.
Later this week, possibly as soon as Thursday, Congress is likely to vote on the multibillion-dollar Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill (H.R. 4577). Hidden among the massive appropriations is an amendment known as the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., and Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss. The amendment would require that all public schools and libraries receiving federal funds in support of Internet access install some form of filtering software to block access to content deemed “inappropriate” for minors. The Federal Communications Commission would be empowered to monitor compliance, thus becoming the de facto national censor.
Not only would this amendment create a national filtering standard, thus removing control from local school and library boards, but its proposed technological “solution” wouldn’t even work particularly well! Countless studies by groups like the Censorware Project, Peacefire, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Consumer Reports have shown that filters fail to block a substantial amount of Internet pornography and, at the same time, often block access to perfectly legitimate information. For example, a recent Censorware Project analysis of popular filtering program Bess revealed that the program failed to block pornographic sites like hardcoresex.com and freexxxpictures.com, while it inexplicably blocked sites like Friends of Lulu, a Web site that promotes the idea that girls read comic books too.
Many studies of filtering software have also found a not-so-subtle political bias, with some filters blocking access to sites like the National Organization for Women, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and other groups devoted to gay and lesbian issues. But filters don’t just block liberal sites; they have also been found to block the home page of the pro-filter American Family Association and filter supporter Rep. Dick Armey’s conservative Freedom Works Web site, the latter presumably because of the House majority leader’s shortened first name. Because of such problems, conservative groups like the Free Congress Foundation, the Tennessee Christian Coalition and the American Family Association of Oregon have joined with the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and the Center for Democracy and Technology in opposing the proposed national filtering mandate.
Indeed, on Friday a commission created by Congress to study the effectiveness of various methods of protecting children from potentially harmful Internet content produced a report that intentionally did not endorse mandatory school and library filtering. The report concluded that “this technology raises First Amendment concerns because of its potential to be overinclusive in blocking content.” It also noted: “Concerns are increased because the extent of blocking is often unclear and not disclosed, and may not be based on parental choices.”
There is clearly plenty of evidence that filters are a highly problematic method of protecting children from inappropriate Internet content. Fortunately, a number of effective and constitutional alternatives like Internet education classes, privacy screens and “acceptable use” policies exist for local public school and library boards to choose from. Roughly 95 percent of our public libraries already have policies outlining appropriate uses of library Internet resources. Unfortunately, these local decisions are now on the verge of being overturned by politicians in Washington.
Given the practical and constitutional problems associated with filters, congressional Republicans would be well advised to drop their foolish filtering amendment, and keep decisions about how to best protect children where they belong — with local public schools and libraries. The people of Holland, Mich., should be allowed to decide this matter for themselves.