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by Ed Lamaster, LamasBeauty Correspondent

Internet Filtering: A battle of losing arguments

"Perhaps the library should see if one of the local "adult" book stores would donate some of their furnishings to make the experience even more authentic."

Ed Lamaster

June 23rd, 2003 was the day the Supreme Court decided that libraries and schools would need to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act, requiring filtering of Internet websites to receive Universal Service Fund money. For several days after, radio talk shows hailed the decision as the right thing to do while civil libertarians felt they had lost another free speech battle.

What amazed me most about the discussion was just how partisan it had become. Both sides put a stake in the ground on opposing sides of the issue without really understanding the technology or analyzing the root causes of the problem. They immediately saw it as a Democrat vs. Republican issue where you were either on the side of civil liberties or fascism. As usual, political opportunism gets in the way of common sense.

I suggest that both sides were wrong in this debate. For several weeks, I have hammered away on this topic on the Poppoff Radio Program, and have found that most adults are not aware of the true ramifications of the Internet filtering debate aside from the rhetoric they hear bantered about in most of the mass media. Unfortunately, the Sacramento Public Library did not feel that they could supply someone to talk with me about this issue on the air for a number of weeks. Perhaps after this article is published, new opportunites will arise.

My interest in this subject comes from over ten years of combined classroom teaching and practical technical experience in Internet security, and two school-aged children who have technical abilities that exceed those of many adults. Over the years I have watched the Internet grow from a text-based, user unfriendly, novelty to an overwhelming commercial playground. Interestingly, the same debates were going on in the early days, but they were framed differently.Even when I was a student teacher in college, debates were going on at the California Technology Project in Seal Beach, California. I had been recruited by the outgoing chairman of the Technology Advisory Committee to represent the frequent users of a statewide system called TRIE (Technology Resources in Education), later being renamed to CORE and then GINA. One of the most interesting issues we deal with on the advisory committee was how to deal with Internet Newsgroups as part of the overall issues of acceptable use and filtering. At the time, we decided that as a statewide system we would need to exercise some form of control over what resources ended up being in classrooms. We realized that we had a duty to do something, but were reluctant to do anything that looked like censorship of free expression.

What came out of those discussions was that as a partially state-funded system, we did not feel comfortable with filtering technology that was de-facto censorship by a quasi-government entity. What we did feel comfortable with was making a choice in deciding what information to publish, selecting those resources that we felt were of the greatest benefit to teachers in the state while also disclaiming responsibility for particular items of content that were beyond our control.We realized that we were not going to be able to prevent access entirely to something that could be considered objectionable. But that fact did not deter us from the realization that we had to perform some level of diligence in order to minimize our liability. We realized that students can and will find interesting and creative ways to get around any type of control we could put in place. In fact, as the youngest member of the advisory board, I had already demonstrated to the system administrator just how easy it was to bypass some of their security settings and gain full access to their system. It is the realization that young people often do have a better grasp of technology than adults that escapes many of the decision makers in business and government.

The situation with filtering is not much different today than it was then. Back then, the ability to filter out objectionable content was limited. It's better today, but nowhere near 100% effective. Decisions about what to filter out had to be based on arbitrary standards, the same as it is today. In fact, while Internet technology to both promote and to filter objectionable material has improved, the basic underlying issue has remained unchanged, except for the willingness to see what it is.You see, the underlying issue here is "what should be made available" and not "what should be filtered out". It is a subtle distinction that I cannot stress strongly enough. As long as we talk about filtering out "bad stuff", we will always end up with people taking sides over freedom of speech vs. the need to protect children. Arguing about filtering will always produce us vs. them arguments, arguments about effectiveness, arguments about whose moral standards will apply, arguments about certain sites being blacklisted, and arguments about who contributed to which political campaign (Oh, did I say that out loud?)

Instead, how about a rational discussion about whitelisting? This is the concept that is used in every public library when we talk about books and magazines. On any given day, librarians make decisions about what books to put on their shelves. They realize they have limited funds and limited shelf space, and that certain topics will have a greater utility than others. Librarians make decisions about what to provide their patrons on a daily basis, and most welcome requests from the community about additional resources.What libraries do not do is put every book in the universe on their shelves. In fact, try donating a box of books to your library to see just how many of those books make it to the shelves. At least in Sacramento, many of those books make it to the book sale each year, never to be added to the collection.

Why access to the Internet should be different is beyond my comprehension. Unfortunately, the American Library Association seems to think that controls over Internet use in our public institutions is an abridgement of freedom of speech, as if you have the right to use public tax dollars to create private porn-viewing booths.

Our Sacramento Public Library, as of the time of this writing, has disappointed me greatly. The library has provided privacy screens for their computers so that you need to be nearly directly behind a screen to be able to see what is being displayed. Several months ago, before the Supreme Court's decision in June, I watched a child, about age 12, walk up to an Internet terminal in the library, punch in library card number that had been written on a piece of paper, choose the "no filtering" option, and proceed directly to surfing explicit adult material. My first reaction was to look at the parent to see where they were-No parent was visible in the library for this child. I took the direct route, and stood directly behind the child-but this did not seem to make him terribly uncomfortable. I was flabbergasted-both at the child's brazenness, but also at the lack of safeguards built into the system.

One would have thought that this week, about two weeks after the Supreme Court confirmed that libraries receiving certain federal money were required to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), that the Sacramento Public Library would have gotten the clue, so I did an experiment of my own. Logging in on a regular Internet terminal, I was hoping to see that the ridiculous "do you want filtering" option had been removed. Whether or not the law requires the library to filter, you would expect to find some sort of protection mechanism in place, but nothing had changed. I could still choose a fully-adult, no-holds-barred experience with your tax dollars. Perhaps the library should see if one of the local "adult" book stores would donate some of their furnishings to make the experience even more authentic.

One more bit of fuel for the fire to make my point about filtering: As I have said before, filters are not all that effective. So, for the second part of my experiment, I chose to see what would happened if I used the filtering option the library had in place (CyberPatrol). I decided to first see if a well-known site that promotes information about how to disable and circumvent filters was blocked. While you may not know that such a site exists, a very easy web seach will turn up the site at Peacefire.org. From here you can find more than you want to know, and chances are that our school-aged children already know much more about these kinds of sites than most adults. This site was not blocked, so you can rest easy that kids can go to the library to find out how to disable the filters you may be using at home.

Moving forward with the experiment, I decided to see if the library's filter would block an obvious, albeit relatively mild, website: www.playboy.com. The filter was set to block this site. Next I did a Google search for "anonymous web proxy", terms that will be familiar to many readers of this publication. Google returned an extensive list of these services, nearly all of them free, that will allow you to surf the web with relative anonymity. These services work as go-betweens that grab web pages for you-You ask them for a page, and they display it within their own. They require no browser or network changes, and there is nothing to install. Testing out each of the links, I found that NONE of the anonymous proxy services I checked were blocked by the library's filters, including those that are very well known in the security community.

Now in defense of the library, and anticipating one of their arguments, trying to identify and filter against every kind of objectionable web site is an impossible task. At best, you might be able to filter 90 percent reliably, and you will filter out perfectly legitimate web sites with even the best filtering solutions available. Filters can't really adjust well to community standards, and they will always be able to be circumvented given enough creativity on the part of the user. Of course, I've heard every one of these arguments before, years before there was even a graphical Internet and all we were worried about were dirty words in Internet newsgroups.

Instead, we should change this argument to deciding how to apply long-established library principles to the Internet. Libraries have a legitimate concern that filtering can be seen de-facto censorship by a government entity. Why can't the library choose what Internet resources it wants to offer its patrons, and avoid the whole filtering argument altogether, using optional filters as a backup to a whitelist system? The libraries have argued that such a system is unworkable due to the millions of websites that exist, but this is precisely what good kids' sites such as Yahooligans do!

Envision a system in the library where you look for a resource in a catalog. If you find the item you're looking for, you go to that resource. If you don't find the resource, you submit a request for it to be added to the collection, and a review committee decides whether to add it or not based on their set of "purchasing" criteria. This system I'm describing is how books, magazines, audio and video are added to library collections every day. The libraries don't scream "censorship" about their books, even though they don't carry but a small fraction of what is available to them. We know that there is always a source for the resource you are looking for, but it might be that you will need to get it somewhere other than the public library.

At one time in the past, parents could feel confident that their children could visit the library without an adult and that the worst thing that might happen is that their 16 year old would get overly fascinated by pictures of bare-breasted natives in the National Geographic. Vile materials on the Internet which are readily available exceed what is legally permissible in every state in the U.S., and trying to filter out over 4.2 million websites with adult content is a losing battle. Some libraries, such as the Sacramento Public Library, are even building a branch that will be shared as a school library. NOW is the time to demand of your libraries that a whitelist system be adopted, regardless of what filtering is done, and that an effective mechanism for identifying children using these systems be put in place to ensure that greater levels of protection are implemented for these users.

I'd like to hear YOUR opinions about filtering, censorship, child protection, and related issues. You can email me at: ed@connectedshow.com

Previous Connected: Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft

For more information, contact Ed at SystemIntegrity, LLC by email at elamast@systemintegrity.com or toll-free at 866-SAFE-BIZ.

Website: http://www.systemintegrity.com/

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