Sunday, July 18, 2004

Library considers Web policy

Additional measures necessary to protect children?

By Cindy Schroeder
Enquirer staff writer

Charlie Bresch's 9-year-old daughter, Sydney, has used the Internet this summer to brush up on her math skills and play games on a Disney Web site.

The Crescent Springs father knows what his daughter is doing because he and his wife don't let Sydney on a computer unless they're in the room with her.

What: Hearing on revised Internet usage policy
When: 10 a.m. Tuesday
Where: Mary Ann Mongan Library, 502 Scott Blvd., Covington
Information: Copies of the proposed policy can be obtained by calling (859) 962-4080.
"It's scary because there's so much strange stuff out there,'' said Bresch, as he helped a neighborhood child sign on to a computer at the Erlanger branch of the Kenton County Public Library last week.

Next week, the Kenton County Public Library System will consider a revised Internet usage policy aimed at protecting children from material that could be harmful to them. But library director Wayne Onkst says there's no substitute for parental supervision.

"No filter is perfect,'' Onkst said. "If you want to make sure that your child doesn't see objectionable material, you need to be with them when they're on the computer. That's the only way you can guarantee that they'll see what you want them to see.''

Greater Cincinnati libraries already comply with a federal law that took effect this month. The Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires libraries that receive federal funds to filter Internet access for minors, was signed by then-President Clinton in 1998. Challenged by the American Library Association, it was ruled constitutional late last year.

The Bresches once tried using filtering on their home computer but found it to be too restrictive.

"Filtering (software is) good to a point,'' Bresch said. "But the bottom line is, you have to be a parent. You need to talk to your kids about rules for using the Internet.''

He and Sydney's mom limit her to certain Web sites, like Disney and PBS. "And I always warn her not to give any personal information."

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association in Washington, D.C., says filtering devices "provide a false sense of security.''

"And for adults and older children," she said, "they often block important information that's constitutionally protected.''

In some cases, such as an adult researching a venereal disease, a user may be too embarrassed to ask a librarian to disable a filter, she said.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a Draconian law meant to shield Web-surfing children from pornographic pictures and online come-ons.

The majority said in its opinion that technology such as filtering software is "less restrictive'' and poses less risk of muzzling free speech.

Kenton County's revised Internet usage policy calls for disabling a filter if someone 17 or older requests it. The modified policy also has new language prohibiting the viewing of sexually explicit materials and materials harmful to minors. However, it warns that filters aren't 100 percent effective.

The Boone, Kenton and Campbell County library systems and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County started filtering Internet access in 1997, long before they were required to do so. All have since revised their policies to address loopholes and to keep pace with changing technology.

"At first, our staff was firmly committed to open access,'' Onkst said. "It took about two weeks until our staff was 100 percent in favor of a filter.''

Library computers are in public areas where anyone can walk by, and children often sit next to adults, local librarians say.

"There's so much sexually explicit material out there,'' Onkst said. "We had so many computers that there was no way that we could effectively monitor them. ... We felt it was important to have an atmosphere where families could enjoy the library together.''

"Within the first six months after we brought up the Internet, we received numerous complaints from staff members and the public about what people were viewing in the middle of the public library,'' said Cindy Brown, director of the Boone County Public Library System. "We don't have separate libraries for children, so we have children sitting next to adults at the computers.''

All of the Greater Cincinnati library systems will consider disabling a filter if an adult asks. The same goes for staff members' computers. Library staff also will consider disabling a filter for a minor if a parent is present and asks that it be turned off.

Occasionally, legitimate Web sites are stopped by the filters, librarians said. In Boone County, a Web site for pilots was blocked for no apparent reason. In Campbell County, teenagers doing a project on same-sex marriages couldn't access material. And in Kenton County, adults were blocked from a Web site intended to provide parents information about objectionable language in films.


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