Science & Technology

No Strings on Me

Librarians fight filters


The San Jose Public Libraries receive about $20,000 each year from the E-rate program, a federal effort to finance public access to the Internet. Next year, though, they might not get any. San Jose is one of several library systems around the country that say they will refuse Washington's subsidies rather than accept the strings attached to them—specifically, the requirements of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which Congress passed in 1999 and the Supreme Court upheld in June.

Under CIPA, institutions that receive E-rate subsidies will have to install "a technology for computers with Internet access to filter or block material deemed to be harmful to minors." This requirement offends many librarians, sometimes on free speech grounds and sometimes simply because such filters rarely work as ad-vertised. "We have a belief in open access to materials on the Internet," explains Ned Himmel, assistant library director in San Jose.

In San Jose's case, the final decision to accept or refuse the funds rests with the city council, not the library. But the conclusion seems foregone: The city already has taken a stand against such filtering programs.

It's not a hard stand to take. San Jose's E-rate subsidy is only about 0.01 percent of its annual operating budget. Indeed, the most consistent theme among the libraries saying no may be that they either didn't receive the grant to begin with or could discard what they do get without feeling much pain. "We don't get E-rate money, so it's a non-issue," comments Jessamyn West, outreach librarian at Rutland Free Library in Vermont.

"Libraries are dealing with it pragmatically," she adds. "For a lot of them, that comes down to, 'How much do filters cost? How much do we get in E-rate money? Do the math.'"

West—co-editor of Revolting Librarians Redux, an anthology of essays by activist librarians—notes that many institutions that continue to accept the E-rate funds are adapting to the new order in other ways. Under the Supreme Court's ruling, for example, libraries still have the leeway to disable their filters for adult patrons. Rutland offers both filtered and unfiltered terminals, letting parents choose which computers their kids can use.

Other places "would be filtering even without CIPA," says Bob Watson, executive director of the Franklin Park, Illinois, library district. Watson's institution installed its filters after witnessing a legal battle at its counterpart in Minneapolis, where staffers persuaded regulators that allowing patrons to view pornography online was creating a hostile workplace environment.