Orange County may deserve its reputation as a hive of high-tech activity, but one local software company may have just lost a chunk of its market. Anaheim-based Log-On Data Corp. manufactures a filtering-software program called X-Stop. Designed to protect kids from smut, hate speech and other real-world stuff on the Internet, X-Stop has been marketed to parents, businesses and libraries across the nation.
But on Nov. 23, federal Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that X-Stop's highest-profile client, the Loudoun County, Virginia, public library, can no longer use the software to filter Internet access on its public terminals.
Although the library "is under no obligation to provide Internet access to its patrons, it has chosen to do so and is therefore restricted by the First Amendment in the limitations it is allowed to place on patron access," the judge wrote in her 46-page decision.
The Loudoun County library system made history on Oct. 20, 1997, when it adopted one of the most heavy-handed Internet access policies in the country. The policy required that filtering software be placed on all public terminals in all of its library branches to filter out child pornography, obscenity and material deemed "harmful to minors." The policy's ostensible purpose was to avoid creating an atmosphere of sexual harassment in the library, but since it was drafted by library trustee Dick Black, a member of the Christian Coalition, numerous people questioned the board's motives. Some of those critics, aided by People for the American Way, filed a suit against the library board, arguing that library patrons were being denied access to constitutionally protected material over the Internet, a violation of the First Amendment. They were later joined by several plaintiffs represented by the ACLU, who claimed their free-speech rights had been violated when their sites were inappropriately blocked by X-Stop.
One of those plaintiffs was Jonathan Wallace, whose dry academic site, the Ethical Spectacle (www.spectacle.org), was blocked by X-Stop several weeks before he published a report on a number of sites erroneously blocked by the program-including the AIDS Quilt site and the Quakers home page.
"My site contains a fairly dry and intellectual discussion of touchy issues in our culture, like pornography," Wallace said. "If the program is just scanning for keywords, my site tends to get blocked a lot-in fact, it's blocked by seven different programs."
In her ruling, Brinkema pointed out that the defendants' "expert witness," David Burt, who runs a pro-filtering site called Filtering Facts (www.filteringfacts.org), admitted that in all of his research, he had only found a handful of cases nationwide where patrons viewing pornography posed a problem for the library. She also chided the library for handing over its constitutional responsibilities to an outside vendor.
"Although the defendant argues that X-Stop is the best available filter, a defendant cannot avoid its constitutional obligation by contracting out its decision making to a private entity," she wrote.
While the ruling is only legally binding in Loudoun County, it's likely to reverberate in other libraries across the country that have already installed filtering software or are under severe pressure from right-wing groups to do so. This does not, thankfully, include the Orange County library system, where John Adams, OC's chief librarian, has instead imposed a very sensible policy of requiring parental permission before allowing minors to access the unfiltered Internet.
Meanwhile, back in Loudoun County, the library board temporarily suspended Internet access at all of its branches until an emergency meeting could be held on Dec. 1. At that meeting, the board decided to restore Internet access on Dec. 3, with a host of restrictions: the library will install privacy screens; all Internet users are required to sign an Internet-use agreement; minors must have permission from their parents and so on. But it does offer adults the choice of receiving the Internet raw or filtered, and it allows parents to make that choice for their children, which is a heck of a lot better than letting a few narrow-minded twerps make that choice for us.