Filtering the Internet

Published in the Hollister Free Lance, June 4, 1997
Dear Editor:

After reading the May 26th Free Lance articles regarding pornography on the Internet, I planned to write some comments on the issue. After all, I'm involved in the computer industry and spend a fair amount of time daily on the Internet, mainly reading sports news and a few local newsgroups, so I feel I can speak with experience on this topic.

Reading the editorial in the May 28th Free Lance has done nothing to dissuade me on that. In fact, while I think it made some valid comments, I also think you may not be aware of the scope of the "problem".

Before I go further, let me say that I have no problems with pornography on the Internet. If adults want to view it, and it's legal by community standards, that's their choice.

However, the issue isn't pornography in general, but children's access to it. In some of the general Bay Area newsgroups, ads for pornographic Web sites appear with regularity. These groups aren't intended to be sexually-oriented, but some unscrupulous Internet marketers send messages to every newsgroup they can to advertise their wares, including pornography. Children could easily come across these messages without even intending to, and, kids being kids, curiosity may well get the better of them.

Internet blocking certainly isn't perfect, and you may in fact cut out useful information as well. But is the cost worth it? With explicit depictions of almost every fetish available, I think it is. Let's look at the factors the editorial considered.

First, the claim was made that a child's access to library materials was the responsibility of the parents. While that may work in the parent's house, it's less likely to work in other places. Children can easily go to the library without their parents, and the librarians may not be able to monitor what they access. In fact, Monday's article quoted Jo Wahdan as saying, "We certainly don't turn anyone away," and the article said the library staff would not stop anyone from calling up a sexually explicit image.

And let's not forget that libraries have typically had a fairly efficient pornography filter in place for years -- it's called the Purchasing Department. How many libraries do you know that stock explicit X-rated images? Sure, there are some controversial books, but for the most part, libraries won't have the type of material available on the Internet.

If the library staff disagrees with that assessment, then I encourage them to start carrying subscriptions to most men's magazines and adding an X-rated video collection to their stacks. I bet it would bring in a lot of new customers....

Second, the library's $3.00 per hour charge for Internet access was cited as a means to discourage pornography browsing. However, if someone really wants pornographic images, $3.00 is a bargain. I haven't checked the prices of Playboy or Penthouse lately, but I bet their prices are at least $3.00, and they aren't nearly as explicit as what's available on the Internet.

Also, as I argued in a previous letter to the Free Lance, I believe that Internet access at the library should be free. The library may be the only place poor children and adults can access the Internet, and charging for it discourages them from participating in what is arguably one of the most important trends of the '90s. Is there really that much difference between providing free access to books and free access to the Internet?

Third, it was pointed out that the computer was in one of the most visible places in the library, and that would discourage pornographic browsing. While the peer pressure may be sufficient for many, it has already been pointed out that the library staff, the only people who actually control the computer, will not stop anyone from viewing pornography.

And, given it's central location, if anyone does view pornography, it just makes it that much more likely that people who find it offensive will be subjected to viewing it.

The editorial decided to ignore Constitutional issues, but in my opinion, they aren't relevant. The Constitution, interpreted broadly, guarantees freedom of expression. Allowing people to publish pornography on the Internet preserves that right. What the Constitution does not guarantee is an audience for that expression. If it did, zoning laws dictating where pornography can sold would probably be unconstitutional.

However, as I believe that adults should be able to access pornography on the Internet if they so choose, I have a simple proposal. Install filtering software on the computers. If someone over the age of 18 wishes unrestricted access to the Internet, have them present ID to the librarian, and the librarian can disable the filtering software (most such programs have passwords to turn the filtering off, I suspect). That will protect our youth while still ensuring unlimited access for adults.

It's clear that pornography on the Internet is here to stay. It's supposedly one of the few businesses actually making money on the Internet. That does not mean that we should not employ means to prevent children from viewing it. Children who really want to access explicit images will find a way, of course. They also find ways to get cigarettes and alcohol, but I don't see anybody advocating allowing children in bars. Or is that next week's editorial?

UPDATE: I presented a copy of this to our Assembly member back then, Peter Frusetta, and offered to testify in Sacramento if he wanted. I never heard back from him.

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