For Libraries, Web Access Is Tangled Issue
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Should local libraries stop children and other patrons from gaining access to some of the more lurid parts of the Internet?
That's the debate roiling several library systems in Northern Virginia as more library branches install computers that permit access to the vast and freewheeling world of the World Wide Web.
The central question is whether libraries should offer unfettered Internet access (including sexually explicit sites) or prevent children and others from visiting the objectionable sites even though that might block access to more legitimate material.
In Loudoun County, after holding several public meetings, a library board committee has recommended installing filtering software on computers that can block access to sexually explicit material. The committee also proposed denying children access to the Internet unless they have parental permission.
In Fairfax County this month, a dozen residents spoke against unfettered access to the Internet at a meeting of the Fairfax County Library Board of Trustees. Led by Karen Jo Gounaud a Springfield resident who unsuccessfully fought the availability of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, in the county's libraries in the early 1990s the speakers urged the purchase of filtering software to protect children.
At the trustees' meeting, Gounaud handed out packets of material that she said she recently had pulled off a Fairfax library computer that included photos of nude women in suggestive poses and ads for a variety of sex toys.
"No one is trying to limit justifiable research," Gounaud said in an interview last week. But, she warned, "every day that those machines are open, there is a danger" that children and teenagers will deliberately or accidentally come across the material.
But Lois Kirkpatrick, a spokeswoman for the library system, noted that finding material on the Internet X-rated or not requires several steps. "I, myself, am online every single day, and I have yet to pull up anything pornographic," she said.
Filtering software so far is getting a thumbs down from county librarians. Like librarians elsewhere in the country, they say it isn't sophisticated enough to distinguish sexually suggestive material from legitimate information. Some filtering software, for example, has blocked access to Web sites that deal with breast cancer, although companies that make the software say their products have grown more sophisticated.
The library trustees expect to reexamine their Internet policy in September, Kirkpatrick said. The board likely will be influenced by the Supreme Court's decision on the Communications Decency Act, she said. The high court's decision on the act, which makes it a crime to send "indecent" or "patently offensive" material to children through the Internet, among other provisions, was expected yesterday or today.
If the Supreme Court upholds the law, Kirkpatrick said, then filters may not be necessary because sexual material on the Internet would be restricted. But if the high court strikes down the law, then the board may look at installing filters on some or all computers, she said. Currently, 18 of the county's 19 library branches have computers with Internet access.
Most of the computers in four branches which were donated by Erol's Inc., a local online provider came equipped with filtering software. The 14 remaining branches received Internet access in April, and those computers are not equipped with filtering software, Kirkpatrick said. She noted that, aside from Gounaud's group, the library system has received few complaints about unfiltered Internet access probably because most Fairfax residents are familiar with the Internet.
"People know how to use it. They know how it works," Kirkpatrick said. "They know that if you don't want to see questionable material on the Internet, you don't have to."
In Loudoun, the library board began grappling with the issue in preparation for the arrival of Internet access to the county's six library branches in August.
Officials expect the board to vote on a recommendation to install filtering software and deny access to children unless their parents approve at its July 21 meeting.
Richard Black, a library trustee who helped write the proposed policy, said he was shocked by how easily children can find sexually explicit material on the World Wide Web by conducting a search of certain innocuous-sounding terms, such as "toys" or "slaves."
"These things came up not through seeking out pornography through the Internet but by simply doing the things a child would normally do," Black said.
In contrast to the debate in Loudoun and Fairfax, which are home to a number of politically active religious conservatives, the issue of open Internet access hasn't raised much dissension in Alexandria or Arlington.
In Alexandria, which has Internet access on six computers in two libraries, no filtering software has been installed. So far, librarians say, no one has complained.
Things also are quiet in Arlington County, which just last week equipped 27 computers in seven libraries with unfiltered Internet access, said Susan Eason, the project manager for the library system's information system.
Computer users must read a warning that the library "does not censor and cannot control the information" on the Internet and a notice to parents suggesting that they accompany their children online.
"We provide access, not supervision," Eason said.
Staff writer Susan Saulny contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company