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News Editor

Filters make sense sometimes

Jun 30, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

Largely lost amid all the hubbub over last week’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action was another ruling that held Congress to be within Constitutional bounds when it told public libraries they must use content filters to protect kids from Internet filth.

Largely lost amid all the hubbub over last week’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action was another ruling that held Congress to be within Constitutional bounds when it told public libraries they must use content filters to protect kids from Internet filth.

Also largely lost – at least on me – is why so many librarians and civil libertarians picked this fight in the first place.

Buzz doesn’t consider himself a First Amendment purist – few people do (witness the exceptions regarding commercial speech, school prayer and shouts of “fire” in crowded theaters) – but zealot wouldn’t be too strong a word.

And support here for the court’s ruling shouldn’t be read as a blanket endorsement of Web filters. It’s becoming clear that content filters are more of a management crutch in the workplace than a necessity born of genuine business imperatives. Overly cautious human resources professionals stoked by on-the-clock lawyers and journalists who recognize a hot-button story have achieved great success in sowing the kind of fear that top-level executives find hard to resist.

Reasonable people can disagree about the need for workplace filters in part because the stakes are relatively low in that we’re talking about adults, not the safety and well-being of children.

Kids are a different matter. And the Internet is an open sewer that no one should want to see a 10-year-old approach without adult supervision.

Which should mean one of three things to librarians: keep children out of your buildings altogether, keep the Internet out or use the best software that today’s filter makers have to offer. I doubt the first two options have many supporters.

Any suggestion that parents should monitor their children’s Internet use at the library might score you a debate point – if the judges are charitable – but fails to recognize the realities of modern life.

So are Web filters in libraries a perfect solution? Heck no, they are just common sense and the better of flawed choices, which Congress recognized and a 6-3 Supreme Court majority affirmed last week.

The Supremes even made it easier for the First Amendment crowd to swallow this decision by requiring that any filters have, in essence, an off switch that adult patrons can have flipped merely by asking a librarian. This might be slightly inconvenient – or even embarrassing to some – but should also ensure that any grown-up doing library research on grown-up matters won’t be thwarted.

If that’s still not enough for the librarians who oppose these filters they have another option: simply decline to accept federal funding, as the law applies only to those libraries that accept such money.

No one ever said sticking to principles would be cheap.

This was only a college election

Now that the 2004 presidential election cycle has kicked into high gear – yes, this early – it shouldn’t be long before we start hearing more hype about the wondrous potential of someday voting for our political leaders over the Internet.

This was my first thought upon reading about the University of California, Riverside, computer science student who hacked into that school’s computer system during a student-government election and registered 800 fraudulent votes.

The student told authorities he was trying to demonstrate the vulnerability of the university’s network.

“He made his point, but you might say he went about it in the wrong way,” a school official told Associated Press. “An e-mail to the Webmaster might have sufficed.”

They had to do the election over, of course, which isn’t exactly the end of the world considering the stakes.

But consider the difference had this been polling for our president?

Yay or nay, write away. The address is