THE INDIANAPOLIS NEWS
December 21, 1998 Monday WEEKLY EDITION
SECTION: BUSINESS; Pg. C12
LENGTH: 1017 words
HEADLINE: Freedom from filtering; The library software used to block unwanted materials often limits adult access to benign resources.
BYLINE: ERIC B. SCHOCH; STAFF WRITER
Nicholas Martin was surprised, then angered, recently when the computer he was using at the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library blocked his Internet access to information about Thomas Szasz.
The site about Szasz, a psychiatrist with a libertarian bent, was blocked by the Internet filtering software used by the library.
The software is supposed to keep pornography off the screens of the library's computers. Why it blocked the Szasz site isn't clear.
Martin, who's president of a national association that focuses on illnesses caused by medical treatment, was frustrated by the amount of effort it took to try to learn the library's Internet policy.
In the process, some librarians told him that they will warn patrons who are accessing Internet sites the librarians - or other patrons - find objectionable.
"They have some pretty serious civil liberties problems over there," he said.
Library officials dispute that. It's not policy to hassle patrons, said a library official, although she agreed that it has happened.
There's no doubt, however, that at the Indianapolis library - as elsewhere - filtering software is an imperfect solution to a difficult problem.
The library has used Internet filtering software on its publicly accessible computers - more than 100 Downtown and at branch locations - since mid-1997. The Library Board felt the software was necessary because children would be using the Internet on library computers, potentially giving them access to sexually explicit materials.
Internet filtering at libraries has caused debate throughout the country. Legislators have tried to mandate it, and the American Library Association has declared itself opposed. Here, however, the library's system has brought little public notice.
Library board President Kerry Spradlin said Martin's complaint is the first she's received since the system was implemented.
Users raise issues about filtering two or three times a week, library employees say. And in most instances, they are complaining about Web sites that they feel should not be blocked, said Catherine Gibson, manager of adult services.
In November, a federal judge ruled the filtering system used by the public library in Loudon County, Va., unconstitutional, raising the question of whether the system in Indianapolis (or any public library) could withstand a court challenge.
Library officials here say the Indianapolis system is different because it is merely an Internet implementation of the library's policy for the rest of its collection of books, magazines and other items.
Unlike some filtering software, the system used in Indianapolis allows sites to be unblocked - or blocked - quickly by librarians.
(The Thomas Szasz site has since been unblocked.)
That's one reason the library picked SmartFilter, from Secure Computing Corp., which targets corporations and other organizations for its services, not individual users. It cost the library $ 4,000 up front, plus $ 2,400 for two years worth of updates.
The SmartFilter system blocks access to more than 200,000 URLs - the addresses for Web sites - which it divides into 27 content categories ranging from art and culture, humor, sports and travel to criminal skills, hate speech and sex. The database is updated weekly.
The Indianapolis library invokes only two of the categories - sex and chat. Chat sites are blocked simply because the library doesn't have the computer resources to support them, said Gibson.
Although the filtering system used here is different, there are similarities to the Virginia case. For example, the Indianapolis library places the filter on all computers, rather than using less-restrictive means such as installing privacy screens, letting adults turn off the filter, or setting aside terminals for minors.
The judge ruling on the Virginia system objected to a policy that effectively limited everyone to materials deemed acceptable for juveniles.
Gibson maintains that's not the effect of the filter in Indianapolis. Just as there are books and other materials in the library meant only for grownups, "there are things we're unblocking that I wouldn't want my child to be looking at. "
And unblocking they are. Not only do the librarians respond to patrons' complaints, but they've learned to keep an eye on certain sites. For example, they regularly have to reopen access to the entire Geocities domain - an Internet community of individual home pages - after the database is updated.
Inevitably, Internet filtering systems targeting pornography will mess up. New pornographic sites will slip through until the filter is revised. Meanwhile, sites with no porn will be blocked.
The Thomas Szasz site is a good example.
At least three such sites were at issue in the Virginia case, including a page that lists books that might be of interest to young people who are gay or lesbian. The page contains nothing close to pornography.
That book page is also blocked from Indianapolis library patrons - even though many of the books it lists can be found on the shelves of the Indianapolis library.
When the filter blocks information that could - and is - found on the library's shelves, "that's the kind of thing that drives me insane," Gibson said. (She said library staff would look into the book and safe sex pages for possible unblocking.)
Although the American Civil Liberties Union has been outspoken in its opposition to library filtering and Internet censorship generally, nobody has complained to the Indiana chapter about the Indianapolis library system, said Chris Gibson, legislative director for the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
"We're sympathetic to the hard position this puts libraries in," he said.
"Obviously, none of us wants young children viewing materials that their parents do not want them to see. But if a library is going to offer Internet access, the ICLU position is that they shouldn't be filtering it to adults. "
GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO; ADULT FILTRATION SYSTEM Phillip Brooks (left) and Mike Chevigny are regular users of the Internet at the main branch Downtown of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.; SUSAN PLAGEMAN
Copyright 1998 The Indianapolis Newspapers, Inc.