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internet filters hit snag

library leaders hit 'perennial problem' as costly, restrictive

by jo napolitano
tribune staff reporter

may 30, 2007

opponents of a bill that would require filters on public library computers to block objectionable images on the internet may have won a reprieve as the proposal appears stalled in the illinois senate.

but library officials worry that the legislation, proposed several times before in different forms, could still be revived or return next session in a new bill.

megan heligas, the head of the flossmoor public library, called the filter proposals a "perennial problem."

"every year, the same issue comes up," she said, adding that the legislation would push libraries into a corner.  "instead of focusing on educating parents and children to use the internet safely, it is focused on penalizing the library board for its own local decision."

those pushing the proposal say they don't want people looking at pornography while children are near.  many patrons agree with that goal but are concerned that the filters' scope would be too broad.

checking the online movie review he wrote of "they shoot horses, don't they?" at the flossmoor library, paul gittings said he would never want anything to come between him and the films he loves.

"i wouldn't want any kind of block," said gittings, 47.  "what if a movie had some subtle nudity?"

library groups argue the filters are cumbersome and expensive.  they said that house bill 1727, which would require filters for libraries wishing to continue to receive state grants, was an attack on the free flow of information.

the house passed the bill, but the measure likely will not make it out of committee in the senate, lawmakers said.

to show their displeasure with the bill, the illinois library association suggested earlier this month that libraries turn off the internet for a day.  the association also encouraged patrons to write to their legislators in objection to the proposal.

dan kleinman, a new jersey man who helps run a web site called safelibraries.org and who has been following the illinois legislation closely, said the libraries seem to have won this round.

"they won it in a dirty fashion," he said, by exaggerating the restrictions filters create.

patrons are divided on the issue.

"i'm going both ways on it," said ashley starling, 16, a sophomore at homewood flossmoor high school.

eila koltun, 52, said filters would be appropriate for certain age groups.  "but what would that be?" she said.  "eighteen and under?  sixteen and under?"

kathy willis, 45, said a filter on her home computer kept her teenage daughter from accessing information on sigmund freud for a class paper.  it was one of many instances in which her child had to ask willis to bypass the filter by using her password.  it was a needless hassle, she said.

similar federal legislation, the children's internet protection act, already is in place, tying funding to provide internet access to poor children with the use of filters.  many libraries lost funding after failing to comply.

library officials acknowledge some filters have grown more sophisticated.  for example, many no longer block the word "breast," and therefore research on breast cancer.  but library groups say filters still deny patrons information on topics, including medical research.

and many filters are created by private companies with agendas, library officials say, so some block information about certain political figures and social causes.

tamiye meehan, president of the illinois library association and director at the indian trails public library district in wheeling, is unimpressed by the filters.  in a recent survey of nearby libraries, a staff member of hers was able to penetrate every last filter in as little as 18 seconds.

judith krug, head of the office of intellectual freedom at the american library association, said filters' one-size-fits-all approach isn't practical for the millions of people who use public libraries across the state.

"it's so hard to accommodate the vast array of tastes," she said, adding that only a small percentage of material on the internet is unacceptable for children.

one way to shield people from images they don't wish to see is to allow patrons some privacy, she said, to move monitors away from general view.

"i guess my real problem is that this is the future ... cutting off information for people who need it," she said.

but state rep. kevin joyce (d-chicago), who wrote and sponsored the house bill, said the issue is protecting children from themselves and unscrupulous adults.

as for added costs, joyce said he would "absolutely give money" to the libraries in his district looking to implement this technology, saying filters are "a worthy investment."

heligas said flossmoor has never had a major problem with people viewing pornography in the library.  she said her library's strict rules regarding the computers seem to work.  children younger than 16 can't use the internet without a parent's signature, and children younger than 9 can't use it without parental supervision.

heligas said filters, which she estimated would cost her library $10,000 to install and $3,000 per year to maintain, would give parents a false sense of security and leave the library liable if something went wrong.

jane schulten, director of the crete public library, said filters are labor intensive.  she said her small staff might not be able to closely monitor each computer or turn software on and off each time a patron makes such a request.

she said she's only had two incidents in eight years in which a patron looked at something deemed inappropriate.  in both cases, a "tap-on-the-shoulder" approach seemed to work, schulten said.

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jnapolitano at tribune.com

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