cisler on Mon, 27 Apr 1998 04:14:09 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Battle over filtering the Net in Silicon Valley libraries

Filtering in the Valley of the Heart's Delight
Copyright 1998 Steve Cisler  <>

Note: URLs and links follow the end of the article

Cupertino, California, April 23, 1998.

Santa Clara County Library's web site calls this area The Valley of the
Heart's Delight. It's an evocative phrase that might have been found on a
packing label on the end of a box of apricots or bing cherries in the 1950's
before GI loan houses cleansed the fertile farming area of orchards and
vineyards. Yes, this valley is popular and it is delightful, in spite of the
earthquakes, traffic, flooding, and high price of houses and rentals. This
area is are also called Silicon Valley, and Santa Clara county accounts for
more exports than any other county in the U.S.  There is a great deal of
wealth here and a good deal of poverty too.  Spanish is widely spoken, and
the county is the home of the effort to end bi-lingual education in our
schools. In my wife's school district over 60 languages are spoken by the
students. Early in the 21st century there will be no majority racial group.
Low unemployment, high cost of living, diverse population, and dynamic

Many families work in the high tech industry, and this area has always had
one of the highest concentration of ISPs in the world. Many of the primary
Internet companies are located here, and Mr. Gates has invested some pocket
change (about $3.5 billion) on acquisitions in the Valley. In spite of the
wealth and the connectivity available, many people do not have computers at
home, and public access sites are one method of providing access. There are
cybercafes, a few community technology centers such as the very innovative
Digital Clubhouse, but the library provides dozens of computers throughout
the county for use by all members of the public who use the library
buildings. Lynx (text) access to the WWW is provided on some machines, and
Netscape on others. The latter group are heavily used. There are no
restrictions on their use, except the machines are not set up with software
plugins for library users to view streaming video, Quicktime video clips or
listen to RealAudio or other sound files. Other than those restrictions and
high demand, there is a fast connection, a helpful staff, and a comfortable
environment for computer users. Up to the present, no software filters or
proxy servers are used to control the flow of print and still images to the
desktop. This lack of filtering or control has proved to be highly

Because Silicon Valley is the high tech model for other areas of the world,
I have found it intriguing to follow the divisive controversy over Internet
access in the public library system.  People outside this area seem to think
we have solved all of the problems related to the Internet, but we are not
much better equipped to deal with them than many other jurisdictions. The
county library system does not include San Jose (third largest city on the
West Coast) or a few other towns, yet the branches represent a good cross
section of  the county: million dollar homes, edge cities, ranchettes taking
over real farms, and bedroom communities. 

The controversy over restricting access is not new to the county system. 
Six years ago I spoke at the Second Computers, Freedom, and Privacy
conference in Washington, DC. My topic was to tell the predominantly 
nerd-wonk-techie crowd about the role that libraries play in defending
access to information.  In the audience was ALA's Judith Krug who was just
learning about electronic issues and free speech.

Here's a short piece of my report from March 1992:

 I spoke about the case of Santa Clara County (CA) Library 
defending its open access policy when a citizen complained about 
children checking out videos he thought should be restricted. It was a 
good example of how the whole profession from the branch librarian 
on up to the California State Librarian presented a unified front in 
the face of opposition from some parts of the community and the San 
Jose Mercury News, the local paper that waffled somewhat on its 
own stance.  Jean Polly of Liverpool Public Library spoke about the 
problems running a library BBS where religious fundamentalists 
dominated the system, but outlined her library's many activities 
(smallest public library as an Internet node) and her plans for the 

Five years later in 1997, the controversy erupted, by chance, in the same
community library (Gilroy) and the same librarian was involved and is still
very active in state library intellectual freedom work. Members of the
public, including a mother by the name of Sandi Zappa, complained about kids
being able to view X-rated material on the Net. Now most librarians would
not use the term "X-rated" because the MPAA ratings are not recognized as
valid, but we'll stick with that term even though the arguments rage back
and forth about the meaning of words like X-rated, pornography, rating
systems, indecent, nudity, violence, hate literature, and of course
censorship.  Zappa enlisted like-minded residents of the south county and
formed K.I.D.S., Keep the Internet Decent and Safe, and their main goal is
to perduade the powers that be to introduce filtering on all public
computers in the library system. Recently, they have made some headway at
the state level to introduce legislation to further their goals.

There have been numerous postings about this affair, and during the past
year the librarians and K.I.D.S. have become so polarized that a mediator,
the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University spent
several months interviewing people and assembling a very detailed report
that recommended the two sides not try and meet. It is well worth reading.

Today, at the Cupertino Community Center, a few minutes from minutes from
Apple and the offices for Sun's Java spinoff, the two sides were in the same
room. This was the meeting of the Santa Clara County Library District Joint
Powers Authority (JPA) which governs the county library system with
representatives from each of the jurisdictions. Four of the representatives
had spent months working on a report with concrete recommendations. This had
been made public before the meeting, and both the free access contingent and
the K.I.D.S. crowd came prepared with short statements, salient points
underlined in the report, showing their colors. Some sported  ALA "Support
Your Library" buttons or the international circle with red slash No Porn For
Kids badges. About 70 people jammed the room. About 20 filled in blue sheets
requesting 3 minutes to address the JPA.

Barbara Conant, the chairwoman, a school teacher and Mayor of Campbell,
convened the meeting and quickly moved to the committee's report. This
document is not on the county library web site, but it should be.  I did not
have a copy but borrowed one briefly from the attorney representing a group
of library patrons in favor of open access.

The committee's goals were stated by Elayne Dauber:
-To strive to make the library a safe place (as Colin Powell's America's
Promise organization endorses).
-Librarians should not be police or parents
-Open access
-Librarians should be librarians not paper pushers
-To have a breathing spell and not spend too much money on this.
That said, the members tried to find not a middle ground of compromise but a
common ground that represented principles that all supported. From the
discussion that followed, some compromises were made.

Here are the main recommendations of the report
1. the library staff will continue a vigorous program of education about the
2. the library staff will develop an introductory page which would appear
before a user gains access to the Internet, stating the library's
3. Use filters on all computers with graphic access to the Internet in the
children's area. Also make one adult computer filtered to that teenagers who
don't want to use the children's computers could have access outside of that
area. During the discussion, the filtering of adult area machines was
4. the staff will look for a method by which people can easily call
reference staff for help (buzzer, gong, flare, loud cry of disgust or rage.
This item was not approved in the final vote).
5. estimate the cost of a proxy server and requisite software,
subscriptions, and site licenses. (About $8K for the server and $1-2,000 for
the rest)
6. Implement this in 3 months. Then have a six month cooling off period to
collect data and make changes at the beginning of 1999.

Following the very clear summary of the report by one of the committe
members, two dozen or so members of K.I.D.S., library staff, unaffiliated
members of the public, lawyers (ACLU), programmers who liked to talk about
the way software works, and people who just wanted to tell stories, filed up
to the microphone. For the most part everyone behaved, but when Sandi Zappa,
went to the microphone, one of the open access guys sitting near me yelled,
"Sieg Heil" which is German for "You, go, girl!" A few of the KIDS crowd
objected to this outburst and asked that the shouter be removed.  He said
nothing more, and Zappa made a short plea for the staff to model their
starting web screen on that of neighboring Mountain View Public Library
which uses some fairly stiff language on their filtered machines.

Most people followed the president's admonition to only address the
recommendations, not to tell anecdotes or stories or explain how strongly
they felt about the controversy.  The JPA knew all that.  Still, one old
fellow began rambling much in the manner of Homer Simpson's father, but by
the end of his three minutes he because coherent, even eloquent. He used to
think of the library as a house of knowledge, as a sanctuary, and he held
the people who made decisions in high esteem. Now, he is worried that it's
just another place where people will get contaminated with filth.

Other speakers wanted something done about hate literature on the net. Some
wanted no filtering at all; others wanted it everywhere in the library. Most
wanted more computers in libraries, and one mayor even recommended moving
romance novels elsewhere to make more room for machines.  County Librarian
Fuller said about computers, "the more, the better."  Many people addressed
the issue of who should protect whom. Many librarians felt that children had
first amendment rights that were not different from adults, and this is
probably the hardest belief for non-librarians to fathom.  Librarians don't
do a very good job of explaining why they believe what they believe.

One of the K.I.D.S. members said "information is not good. Eve <of the
Garden of Eden fame> should have known that. What is good is  education
about information."  That information literacy should be taught might be a
component of the library education package. One new element would be
literature aimed at kids, not at parents, to help them understand the online
world  they are entering when they use the library computers.

Dave Eisenberg, a programmer, said that the filtering programs were really
too dumb but given the progress that is being made, he hinted that he might
find some acceptable later.  As an afterthought, he asked the board how many
had spent more than 20 minutes on the Internet in the last week.  Only three
or four raised their hands! The rest evidently had no regular contact with
the Web or the Internet. That was amazing to me.

Ed Cavalini, a librarian I knew when I worked with young adults in the
1970's, talked about the booming business in the Milpitas branch. He is
concerned about the money spent on filtering software and proxy servers and
would like to see that spent elsewhere.

A member of the library union said any change in job description such as
requiring staff to "police" the Internet machines would be in violation of
their contract. Another board member suggested that the library find out
what the community wanted in the way of services and then negotiate with the
staff to provide that (and avoid a union dispute.)

A couple of the dozen children present made short statements, usually asking
for some sort of protection from pornography.

Many people placed high hope on Microsoft NT and the forthcoming Dynix
CoStar library system and the new options for filters. Some thought the
public would have a choice of different kinds of filters, but Susan Fuller
did not make a firm promise that this would happen, only that it would be

The ACLU lawyer said that as long as demand exceeds supply you should not
filter adult computers, that filters are imperfect, that kids should have
choices and "we can't give up our liberty for a false sense of security." 

The chairwoman reiterated that the public should address the
recommendations, and a K.I.D.S. supporter nodded her head and then launched
into a story about how Ted Bundy said he got his start with pornography. 
Another fellow, probably an engineer, said that stories and anecdotes did
not matter, only hard data which could be collected "easily" with "simple
software" and that the staff should sift through this (much as the Utah
Education Network seems to be doing) to find out which kids are looking at
naughty pixels before they enacted anything permanent. What he was
recommending seemed to be to do nothing until you quantified the problem.
After a year of wrangling, nobody seemed to buy that suggestion.

A few people alluded to the Loudon County (Virginia) decision, which the
committee had seen it before making their recommendations. One committee
member from a wealthy suburb kept saying "libarian" and I found it hard to
take her seriously.  The libarians generally felt there was not a problem in
their libraries; the problem was the controversy stirred up by the

This part of the meeting ended after almost three hours with most of the
recommendations adopted with some modifications, as noted. Tempers were
restrained, and most everyone thanked the JPA for the work they had done. My
thanks to Tom Shanks of the Ethics Center who spent time discussing the
controversy in this county last year and to the members of the public and
library staff who have shared their thoughts about this ongoing affair.

-Steve Cisler is a former public librarian who is a big supporter of the
libraries that he uses. When anyone  says "check," he replies,
"check your local library. it's cheaper and might be just as fast." His
articles about access to information on the Net include "Protection and the
Internet" (1993), an address to children's librarians at ALA in 1995,
"Indigenous Groups and the Internet" in Cultural Survival Quarterly Winter
1997, and "Who hates the Internet?" in March-April 1998 Community Networking
newsletter. For copies of any of these articles, write him  at At present, only this article and the Cultural Survival
Quarterly article are on his web site

Links and URLs mentioned in this article:

Digital Clubhouse

Filtering Facts (a pro-filtering site)

K.I.D.S. Keep the Internet Decent and Safe. The Gilroy group that advocates
filters in Santa Clara County Library

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Access, Internet, and Public Libraries:
A report to the Santa Clara County Libraries.

Santa Clara County Library 
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