That said, the installation of private-sector software filters on public library terminals -- with no public debate and no official government action -- is worrisome. It may be unconstitutional.

According to Getgood, a lot of libraries are using filtering software. Her assertion is hard to substantiate, because libraries aren't going to boast about using such software, she claims. One reason for their reluctance: The American Library Association, the leading professional organization for librarians, has condemned any use of filtering software. (As has the ACLU.)

Ann Brick, a staff attorney for the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, considers filtering software to present constitutional problems that may be worse, in some ways, than the restrictions of the Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court just ruled unconstitutional. The software can be set to filter writings that would be, under legal analysis, constitutionally protected speech; its use in a library could affect free speech rights, even though no law mandating filtering is in place.

Here in California, librarians follow policies that vary widely.
The publicity barrage in Boston makes Terry Jackson, for one, cringe. Jackson is the library services director for the midsize San Bruno Public Library (roughly 25,000 cardholders out of a population of 40,000).

A little more than a year ago, Jackson installed the library's first and only public Internet terminal; it was pre-loaded with SafeSurf filtering software.

For Jackson, use of the filter was a matter of conserving scarce resources as much as protecting unwitting patrons from excessive sex and gore. She has just one Internet terminal, and needs to restrict its "recreational" use. Boston showed "very poor library management," she says, by clamping down on Internet access after the fact.

By contrast, Lani Yoshimura, who runs the Gilroy Public Library, which is about the size of its San Bruno counterpart, has insisted on completely open Internet access -- despite sustained attacks from conservative groups.

The protests have had at least one effect: The agency that oversees the entire Santa Clara Library system, of which Gilroy is a member, will be holding workshops on how the Internet should be presented.

Jackson commends Yoshimura for her principles, but she insists her system "works for San Bruno." Yet it doesn't sound like San Bruno has truly been put to the test. Jackson admits that a number of legitimate sites are unreachable on her terminal. When patrons ask to access these sites, Jackson says, she directs them to a staff terminal. Which is hardly a satisfactory solution in the long run.

And if, as Jackson hopes, the San Bruno Public Library undergoes a much-needed expansion, Jackson will have more Internet terminals to offer her patrons -- and more patrons to police.

In both Gilroy and San Bruno, the use, or lack of, Internet filtering software could result in political battles over Internet access policies, or even court challenges. And San Francisco may not be far behind.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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