Photo by Daniel C. TsangTwo years after standing firm against attempts to censor Internet content in the county's public libraries, county librarian John Adams stood up at a press briefing at El Toro Library in Lake Forest essentially to announce that he's changed his mind.
Adams was the proud host of the Sept. 11 coming-out party for CyberPatrol, an Internet blocking software he vowed will "filter out the filth" on computers in the libraries' kids' areas. He beamed as he described the county as being "kind of trendsetting in this regard."
But by implementing such software, Adams goes squarely against the policies of the American Library Association (ALA), the professional group for U.S. librarians. The ALA's position is that parents—not the state—should dictate what children should read, and it opposes even the filtering of selected computers in publicly supported libraries.
That once seemed to be Adams' view, too. He told OCWeekly's Wyn Hilty ("Wotta Guy! Why we love OC librarian John Adams," July 3, 1998) that "using filtering software would be like if I took The Orange CountyRegister, cut out all the articles I didn't like, and put the rest out for patrons." Besides, Adams added, such software would be impractical "because we have been funded only to provide one terminal in each building. . . . It's not viable to propose any filtering or editing" on a terminal that would be shared by adults and children.
But now that the county has allocated more money for more terminals, Adams has changed his tune—and obviously found his metaphorical Register-cutting scissors. When the Weeklyasked about this apparent flip-flop, he explained that when adopting its Internet policy in 1998, the county library decided there should be no computer filters but that something had to be done to prevent "bad stuff" on an unfiltered Internet from getting to children. So he recommended that minors seeking open access to the Internet in county libraries must first get written permission from their parents or guardians. That's been the policy since July 1, 1998.
"The problem we recognized was that in many cases when the librarian told a kid that they needed to get their parents' or guardians' permission to use the thing, there would be a sigh, downcast kiddie eyes, and an 'Oh, okay. Never mind,' and the kid would just walk away," Adams said. "Whether this is because the kid thinks their parents want them to not see live nude girls or if its because the kid knows their parents are reluctant to sign pieces of paper for the government, I can't say."
Now flush with terminals in kiddie and non-kiddie areas of the libraries, filtered computers are now available to anyone under 17—no note needed—while the unfiltered versions are open to adults and everyone else with parental permission.
But my own test with the El Toro Library's CyberPatrol exposed the software's shortfalls. For instance, Adams insists that CyberPatrol screens out "objectionable" online chat-room discussions as well as "sex, violence [and] hate-group propaganda." But I was allowed access to the website for the Costa Mesa-based Institute for Historical Review (www.ihr.org), which denies the reality of the Holocaust, and a site dedicated to Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel (www.zundelsite.org).
Adams told assembled press and concerned citizens that gay sites should not be blocked unless they are "sexually oriented." But I was unable to access the sites for Planet.Out (www.planetout.com/news), a gay news service, and the Guide (www.guidemag.com), an internationally circulating gay travel magazine from Boston; neither site contains sexual material. I was also denied access to the archive of Crusader's Column (home.earthlink.net/ ~mrcrusader), authored by the activist formerly known as Andrew Exler, who successfully sued Disneyland several years ago over same-sex dancing. Crusader (his legal name today) told the Weekly, "I am sure my page is blocked by CyberPatrol and possibly other filtering software because of the controversial content of my website, which includes open discussion about gay activism."
Inexplicably, my recent Weekly article on the explicit sex talk at the Orange Unified School District board meeting ("Fisting, But Not Fistfights," Sept. 15) popped up on the screen despite CyberPatrol. Which points to a dilemma: no one outside the firms that manufacture filtering software knows what criteria are used to block certain sites. And Adams, public librarians and library patrons are unable to get access to a list of banned sites to see what has been blocked. Adams says he hasn't even tried to get the list, since he believes it is treated as a trade secret.
Does he trust CyberPatrol to block the correct sites?
"We have no choice," he conceded.
"As we've all recognized for some time, this is a thorny issue and no solution fully satisfies all the concerns that Internet in government libraries raises," Adams says, "but I am comfortable that we are providing full unfiltered access for everyone who walks in who is either over 17 or has cool parents."