Librarians Debate Internet Filters

It's not easy being a Dick — especially at the local library.

As lawyers in federal court this week debated whether Internet filters for public library computers should be mandatory, librarians argued the law unfairly blocks out legitimate Web sites like those of House Majority Leader Dick Armey and pro golfer Fred Couples.

"We got a call this week from someone supporting the lawsuit whose last name was something like Hancock. He said he publishes work on the Internet and can't access it sometimes on certain computers," said Penny Hummel, a spokeswoman for the Multnomah County, Ore., library.

The Multnomah County library and the American Library Association argue the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000 is an imperfect technology that can inadvertently block access to information about individuals whose names are erroneously but inextricably associated with sex.

Former U.S. Rep. Dick Swett is one of those people. "This is something I've had to contend with my whole life," the New Hampshire resident said wearily. "Why should I be penalized if the rest of the world's mind is in the gutter?"

But that doesn't mean he thinks the act should be overturned.

"Unfortunately, computers are not yet capable of distinguishing between what is truly an issue of censorship and information pertaining to Vice President Dick Cheney and myself," Swett said.

Not many kids are likely to be researching his site these days, Swett conceded. But they may well be interested in getting information about Declaration of Independence-signer John Hancock or Tale of Two Cities author Charles Dickens. And computer filters might block access to these files.

The same goes for anyone looking up the Earl of Essex or Sussex, drama students interested in Dick Van Dyke or Dick Clark, and science students interested in prickly heat or, on a more serious note, breast cancer.

The librarians argued filters also block information about American Indian groups because of references to peyote — a plant used in native religious ceremonies but banned in many states for its hallucinogenic properties. They also argued certain filtering software protocols have been set up with political or religious biases.

Nancy Willard, a research associate at the University of Oregon who recently released a report on the issue, said she was "blown away" after discovering some of the filtering software blocks sites containing references to witchcraft, homosexuality and anti-government groups.

The librarians don't want to do away with the filters altogether. But they do argue patrons should have a choice between filtered and unfiltered Internet access.

"We maintain it's a local control issue — the federal law is a one-size-fits-all solution," Hummel said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.