Internet Filtering

Ray McBride writes \"The following appeared in South Carolina\'s State Newspaper on Sunday 13 February 2000.\"

Library access to Internet not problem it\'s perceived to be.
By Jim Johnson

South Carolina\'s public libraries are being characterized in press reports as being places where children are exposed to pornography over the Internet. Reading these reports gives the impression public libraries are cyber adult book-stores. Nothing could be further from the truth, Public libraries take their role in providing services, including Internet access, to children very seriously. Every public library in the state has an Internet use policy which outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
The current controversy is largely due to one library system, Greenville County Library, not having procedures in place to implement its policy, which clearly states, \"Users may not send, receive, or display obscene materials, child pornography, and/or materials prohibited under applicable local, state, and federal laws.\" Since the controversy arose, procedures have been put in place.

Children visit public libraries for a variety of reasons. Children\'s librarians and library administrators try to make children\'s rooms warm and living. Many people have spent their careers trying to instill in our children the love of reading. Just as public libraries provide books to children who do not have books at home, they provide access to the Internet to children without home Internet access. Children\'s libraries show the same responsible efforts in working with children on the Internet as they do with books.

When children use Internet stations in public libraries the first thing they usually see on the screen are suggestions for sites to visit, such as helpful sites for homework assistance, sites on science and on animals, or sports. One such site lists 700-plus sites for \"kids and adults who care for them.\" Internet stations in children\'s areas are monitored by staff. Unfortunately, for some reason there were, until recently, no Internet-accessible stations in the Greenville County Library\'s children\'s room. Children had to use stations in the adult area. In many libraries, children under certain ages must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to use the Internet. Other libraries require parental permission to use the Internet.

South carolina\'s public libraries provide Internet access in a variety of ways. Some libraries do not filter the Internet; some filter only the children\'s room; some filter everything. It is a local library board decision on which method to use; and it is a local library\'s responsibility to enforce the policy. Except for the situation in Greenville County, public libraries are doing a good job of balancing citizens\' right to information under the First Amendment and protecting all citizens --- not just children --- from exposure to harmful materials. A simple tap on the shoulder of someone accessing a harmful site is usually sufficient. If not, the offending person is often removed. This approach is reasonable.

Internet filters are not silver bullets. They do not provide 100 percent protection from harmful materials, be they \"obscene,\" hate sites or violent sites. Parents who believe that a library\'s or a school\'s filtering the Internet is protecting their children at all times are misguided. Filters can lead to a false sense of security. Parents who teach their children what the Internet is, and who work closely with librarians, will encourage their children to act responsibly in using this new technological wonder.

The Internet offers a wide variety of authoritative, up-to-date information. It also contains incorrect information as well as sites not suitable for children.

Clear local policies. Empowered staff. Parental involvement. These ingredients will enable South Carolina\'s public libraries to address the current situation and meet the challenges of the future. Statewide mandated legislation is not the answer.

Mr. Johnson is director of the South Carolina State Library.

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