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Image: Brock N. Meeks
A reversal on libraries and filters
Parents, beware: the software
doesn’t really work

WASHINGTON — There is perhaps no more humbling experience than to have an argument with yourself … and lose. This is the situation MSNBC’s Brock Meeks finds himself in one week after profiling the efforts of librarian David Burt’s Filtering Facts organization, which advocates using so-called “filtering,” or blocking software, on library computers in an attempt to keep objectionable content at bay. Although Burt’s intentions are admirable, Meeks finds himself smarting from an intellectual belly-flop. Here’s why.

Bulletin Boards WWWashington Bulletin Board
Internet Sites American Library Association
  FILTERING SOFTWARE doesn’t work. At least, not to a level with which I’m comfortable. I have written here that such software can be “tweaked” or manipulated so that only “pornography” gets filtered, thus allowing the gamut of other Internet information to be accessed. This process is much more complicated than I had imagined, on several levels.
       Most of these blocking software packages contain encrypted databases of the web sites that are deemed “objectionable.” No one except the company producing the software knows exactly what is blocked and what isn’t. The software company makes the decision on what content is “bad” and what is “acceptable,” and that is a damnable flaw in these types of programs.
       What I consider objectionable material isn’t what you might consider objectionable. Certainly I don’t believe that some corporate entity is capable of being my stand-in moral compass any more than I believe the government can be.
Do I really want a librarian making decisions on what my kids can see?

       While it’s true that these software packages, to varying degrees, can be “tweaked” by the librarian, the librarian still doesn’t know the full list of sites that are blocked and therefore can only make an educated guess about what sites should be added to the “unblocked” list. Do I really want a librarian making decisions on what my kids can see? The short answer: No. I don’t want some librarian making those decisions anymore than I want the government acting as a parental filter.
       To get an idea of the kind of hoops a librarian-or you at home, for that matter-must jump through to make these blocking software packages work, take a look at a fascinating grass-roots effort called The Internet Filter Assessment Project. This project is headed by Karen Schneider, a professional librarian and author of the forthcoming book “A Practical Guide to Internet Filters.”
       The project is, admittedly “not a strict scientific study,” Schneider writes about the effort, but it contains the collective efforts of months and months of hammering on various filtering programs. As Schneider writes in one of her updates on the project: “These are mechanical tools wrapped around subjective judgment.”
       The preliminary findings of The Internet Filter Assessment Project should give pause to any library considering installing filtering software and for any parents advocating the use of filtering in their local library. The process is labor-intensive. Even when a librarian dedicates many hours to “tweaking” the software packages, there is no guarantee that objectionable material won’t slip past the filter and onto a screen before your children. If you’re concerned about your kid seeing sexually explicit material then you have to ask: Is seeing a little of that type of content better than seeing a lot?
       In my own internal version of pretzel logic, I’ve come full circle on this issue. All during the debate over the Communications Decency Act, I advocated parents “taking back” the responsibility for their kids when it comes to the Internet. Yet when I wrote about libraries and the Net I seemed all too willing to abdicate my position as a parent and thrust that job on a librarian or worse, a piece of software.
       No one, not the local librarian, not a piece of software, not the government — or some columnist suffering from cognitive dissonance for that matter — should determine what your kids see or don’t see via the Internet. That is a parent’s job. It is my job. Be it at school or at the library, a parent’s responsibility doesn’t end when the front door slams.
       If you’re concerned your kids are sneaking off to the library computer to peek at something you don’t want them to see, take another look at what how you’re communicating with your kids. “But I can’t be with them all the time,” I hear you say. True enough. At some point you have to trust your kids. If that trust isn’t there, well, that’s a subject beyond the scope of this column.
Parents and librarians must enter into a kind of social compact where each side works together.

       Parents and librarians must enter into a kind of social compact where each side works together, not against the other. There needs to be accountability on both sides.
       Librarians, if they are to keep filtering at the door, must ratchet up their involvement. As a start, libraries should take the responsibility for building Web homepage “front end” navigation tools for kids that lead them to interesting places on the Net. Some have already done this. And the American Library Association, which I’ve beat over the head in this column a few times, should be commended for designing a sample of this kind of resource.
       Then there needs to be some kind of education campaign for parents and kids. One such project is being used with great success at the Canton Public Library in Michigan. Called Cyber Kids, the program begins with a “Cyber Kids consent form,” a document signed by both the parent and the child and kept on file at the library. The document acknowledges that library workers aren’t substitute parents and also informs parents that the Internet is an untamed resource, full of the good, the bad and the ugly — just like schools, the streets, the 7-11 and the shopping mall.
       Once the form is signed, the kids get a special sticker that they display while working on library computers. No sticker, no computer use. Parents and children attend a 30-minute orientation that
       covers everything from how to use the Internet to the library’s rules for using computers. Run afoul of the rules and your computer privileges are revoked.
       If your library doesn’t have such a program, ask why and push for one. Yes, you can also push for filtering, too, but realize that filtering comes with a big price tag: You allow someone else to make moral decisions for you and there no guarantees the products work to your satisfaction.
        Meeks out…
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