The Fettered Web
The next battle in the war over free speech on the Internet is going to be fought in our public libraries.
That particular battle has not yet begun in San Francisco; at the S.F. Public Library, Internet access is provided without restriction, but with a warning that no restrictions are in place.
But such policies are not necessarily permanent. They're far from universal. And they're certainly open to challenge.
The Boston Public Library was forced to install filters recently after a patron caused a political uproar by publicizing some extremely raunchy pages her underage son had visited on a Boston Public Library Internet terminal. The mayor and City Council demanded filters on children's department computers.
And although the filtering software war hasn't come to San Francisco's public libraries, a skirmish has occurred here in the private sector -- between a bookstore and the same company whose software is now used at the Boston libraries.
The program is CyberPatrol, made by Massachusetts-based Microsystems Inc. According to Susan Getgood, CyberPatrol's wonderfully surnamed marketing director, her product is the No. 1 Internet filtering software in the country, with 700,000 individual subscribers and a large number of public library customers. Those numbers could rise if CyberPatrol, which already markets itself to subscribers of Prodigy and CompuServe, consummates its plans to add Netscape and Microsoft to its list of partners.
Sometime in the past several weeks -- neither side can say precisely when -- CyberPatrol banned the Website of the Booksmith, a fairly sizable (50,000 titles, 100,000 books) independent bookstore in the Upper Haight. (To date, none of the other leading Internet filtering programs has seen fit to ban the Booksmith's site.)
Although what takes place in a public library has different constitutional implications than the affairs of a private business, the Booksmith's encounter with CyberPatrol provides some insight into the absurdity of trying to tame the amorphous World Wide Web, while keeping its value as a research tool intact.
It was the Booksmith's erotica section that got it into trouble. Other bookstores sell many of the same titles without being censored. And the Booksmith's erotica home page (www.booksmith.com/erotica.html) barely qualifies as racy. Currently, it features the dust jacket of the novel Eat Me by Linda Jaivin, which is graced by bright paintings of fruit. The text -- which includes somewhat naughty references to a cucumber and a whip -- ran almost verbatim in a recent Personals column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
But the Booksmith Website made a crucial mistake most other bookstore Websites avoid: It posted a warning that customers under 18 years of age couldn't order erotica items. That sort of caveat can serve as an automatic red flag to many smut-searching devices used by filtering programs.
Which is probably what happened with CyberPatrol, according to Getgood.
The Booksmith case stands out because CyberPatrol is arguably among the more conscientious of the software filter companies. Getgood argues that by creating a voluntary smut filter, CyberPatrol and its ilk will forestall more drastic -- and mandatory -- government censorship.
CyberPatrol has even set up an appeals process for site designers who feel they've been wrongly banned. Serving on the panel are representatives from a number of liberal groups that consider themselves advocates of tolerance. Among them is the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), asked to participate after it chastised CyberPatrol. (CyberPatrol also invited the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], but it declined, Getgood says. The conservative Morality in Media, however, took up the offer.)
Loren Javier, GLAAD's liaison to CyberPatrol, acknowledges that his group's participation in the appeals process is "a double-edged sword." Because CyberPatrol isn't going away anytime soon, GLAAD chose to "have a voice" in the blocking process, rather than remain entirely outside it.
For all this apparent open-mindedness, however, CyberPatrol's handling of the Booksmith was pretty ham-handed. Rather than simply banning the erotica section, CyberPatrol shut off access to the entire site (www.booksmith.com).
The way the Booksmith's erotica home page is designed, the only way to block access without shutting down the entire site would be to electronically "hide" the page in a separate folder, which could then be blocked. The other alternative would be to register the addresses of all of the erotica pages themselves.
Thomas Gladysz, who manages the Booksmith's Website, says the folder approach wasn't feasible; it would have cut into the value of external links he'd built to the rest of the Web. CyberPatrol says it can't be burdened with listing individual page URLs; its weekly downloads of forbidden locations would swell to unmanageable proportions.
The Booksmith/CyberPatrol encounter provides a creepy glimpse into the tangle that quickly develops when one party's supposedly objective criteria for objectionable material meet another party's quirky -- albeit, in Gladysz's case, stubborn -- way of doing things.
The questions grow even thornier when CyberPatrol restricts Internet access in a public forum -- for example, a library -- where speech is presumed to be maximally protected by the Constitution. The extent to which speech is protected in a library has been the subject of years of litigation and legal argument, focused in large part on the degree to which a community-supported institution can be forced to harbor expressions the majority in the community finds offensive.