Flawed Filter Fallout From CIPA

Ed Palomar
MT. LEBANON, Pa. — Internet filtering software installed in public library computers are causing web surfing snafus. Access to info about a children’s book, a site that follows gas prices nationwide, and even the U.S. Supreme Court’s website have been blocked on some library computers.

This cyber-censoring comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 23, 2003 ruling that Congress may compel public libraries to install anti-pornography filters on their computers. The Supreme Court upheld the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Public libraries that did not install filters by July 1, 2004 faced losing their federal funding.

But the effort to protect children from online pornography often comes at a cost - the free flow of info that is the hallmark of the Information Superhighway. In order not to lose its $500,000 per year in federal funding, the Allegheny County, Pa. public library system installed NetSweeper’s software on its 2,000 computers.

The county paid the Ontario, Canada-based company $10,000 for the filtering program. The county is expected to pay NetSweeper a similar amount annually in order to maintain the system.

NetSweeper’s website states that it has “Intelligent Internet Access Management” and that it assists educational institutions in complying with CIPA. A section on the site is designated “Education,” and it declares: “Safe Schools On-Line Means well-Protected Children in Classrooms.”

The site goes on to claim: “While other companies provide only lists of URLs, NetSweeper works proactively to make sure that our technology grows with the Internet. In addition to our master database that contains millions and millions of URLs, NetSweeper employs its AI (Artificial Intelligence) to scan web pages in real time. Our self-propelling system creates the most up-to-date URL list available in the market.”

It also contends that the firm provides: “The safest and most advanced technology for filtering Internet content and offering an intelligent approach to management of the World Wide Web is now available to schools.” The NetSweeper site boasts: “Our Revolutionary URL filtering process leaves the competition standing in the dust.”

However, along with online erotica, NetSweeper’s so-called “intelligent filters” have sometimes appeared to be more artificial than intelligent.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper, at a Mt. Lebanon library, NetSweeper blocked access to at least 25 commonly used websites, including sites that deal with pensions, police jobs, arts and crafts as well as the sites for Villanova University, the University of Michigan and Star Trek.

Patrons and librarians alike are frustrated, said library director Cynthia Richey.

NetSweeper universally blocks words such as “breast” and “black hole.” This may keep children off of porn sites, but it also prevents women from doing Internet health research into breast cancer. And students can’t learn online about those blocked black holes in outer space, either.

According to Sewickley Library Director Carolyn Toth, at the Sewickley Public Library, filters have blocked sites pertaining to the local community college, county real estate assessment, and the Beanie Bears. Although librarians can unblock the Net at the request of users, Toth called this “one more thing they have to do, something of a nuisance.”