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[whitespace] Not Exactly Censorship

Gilroy--When an unlucky Net surfer tried to find the Palo Alto Weekly's Web site on a computer in the Gilroy library, he got an unusual message: Access denied. There was nothing wrong with him, or the paper. The software meant to filter out pornographic material just got a touch confused. Maybe it was all those risqué personal ads in the back.

This experience will be increasingly common for people who use the county library to access the Internet. After more than a year of unrelenting pressure from a small group of conservatives here, many of whom are associated with Gilroy's South Valley Community Church, Santa Clara County has arrived at a compromise. Since July 27, filtering software has been installed on all Internet-capable computers in the county library system. Computers in the children's section are permanently filtered. In the grown-up rooms, users choose whether to take in the Net in all its unfettered glory, or to head out with training wheels.

Lani Yoshimura, Gilroy's chief librarian, says that seems to be satisfying the library's critics.

"Most people can live with the option to choose," Yoshimura says. In the year and a half since the Internet-porn controversy started bubbling, she says, people have had some time to get used to the Internet, and the debate has cooled down.

Just a year ago, a small but vocal group of patrons was threatening to throw library staff in jail for distributing pornography to minors, today its as if the net were as predictable as a Sunday sermon.

"No one has said anything [about the new filters] one way or the other," Yoshimura says.

Silence may be the newest tactic in fighting the endless stream of naughty data bits on the Web. Cynthia Walker, who in the past has been vocal about filtering the Internet, would not talk about the issue at all.

"I refuse to interviewed by you," she said in a very brief phone conversation with Metro this week. "I'm calling all my friends right now and telling them not to talk to you."

Walker was upset about an article I wrote a year ago on this controversy.

Among other things, Walker complains that South Valley Community Church is not associated with the movement to filter the Internet. However, many of those leading the movement are church members. Reverend Eric Smith, founder of the church, has spoken out on the issue at public meetings and threatened to sue the county over unfiltered Internet access.

Though Yoshimura is very happy with the compromise and the sense of calm it has restored to her workplace, this solution may be short-lived. "If the filter is not optional in the kids room, this is likely to generate a lawsuit," says Stanton McCandlish, program director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that advocates for first amendment rights on the Internet.

"Every single filter blocks material that is constitutionally protected for minors," McCandlish says.

As the Gilroy library's disgruntled Web surfer found out, filters are imprecise at best. Incorrectly blocked sites are not uncommon on the new system.

"Filters are crude tools made for use in the home, " says McCandlish. And, he adds, the law is clear. "We have two generations of case law that says you can't keep matter out of a library because it may not be appropriate for minors."

The bottom line for McCandlish is that when you buy a filter, you buy someone else's morality.

Most filters work by either screening out web sites by keyword (like "breast," in which case information about breast cancer might be excluded from a search) or by employing a team of workers to review sites to determine what should be filtered.

Though the library's system only screens for pornography--not hate speech or other material--the often subjective determination of what constitutes pornography is out of the hands of parents and librarians, and in the hands of Sonic, the Sunnyvale company that produces the software. McCandlish says the answer to this high tech dilemma is something very low-tech: "This old fashioned thing called parental supervision."
Jim Rendon

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