VA Lawmakers Push for Filtering Software on Public Computers

Matt O'Conner
RICHMOND, Va. – Lawmakers in Virginia are considering two bills that would require all public libraries to install filters on computers to screen out websites with sexually explicit content and other material deemed harmful to minors.

The House bill's author, Del. Samuel Nixon, said the legislation is necessary to protect children from accidentally downloading pornography while using the Internet at libraries. Nixon’s bill is almost identical to one filed by Virginia state Sen. Mark Obenshain.

Opponents argue that such legislation amounts to censorship and relies on imperfect technology that will block legitimate sites, especially those providing gay and lesbian community news and information.

The danger, according to Carolyn Caywood, intellectual freedom counselor for The American Library Association, is that software companies could base their selection of URLs and search terms they consider inappropriate on personal political, social and religious views.

For example, many filters block sites dealing with the human body, AIDS, birth control and gay rights.

Nixon admits the bill does not specify what constitutes “material deemed harmful to minors.”

Nixon unveiled his plan to introduce the bill at a Monday press conference sponsored by the Family Foundation, a group that also backs a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Nixon filed a similar bill last session that was killed in committee.

A 2000 federal law required public libraries to put Internet anti-pornography filters on computers as a condition for receiving federal funding. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the constitutionality of the law.

The American Library Association opposed the federal law on the grounds that software companies that produce the filtering technology keep their lists of blocked terms secret.

Caywood points out that the state’s library system already offers visitors the option to use computers with Internet filters as well as specially designated, kid-friendly systems that only allow access to a limited number of pre-approved sites, such as Disney.