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Free Porn: SFPL Tries to Shield Patrons' Screens from Public Eyes 

Wednesday, Aug 8 2012

"I never expected to see so much double anal on this job," said the librarian, who requested anonymity because nobody wants their name popping up on a Google search for "double anal."

She might be concerned because some of those searches likely stem from her workplace, San Francisco's Civic Center library. That branch has been in the news recently, after the city installed "privacy screens" on 18 computers. It's a new plan for dealing with public porn consumption; an attempt to protect the public from offensive images without drawing the ire of Internet freedom advocates. And it's a strategy that concedes a person's right to watch porn in government-run libraries. You could call it: "If you can't beat 'em, hide what they're watching from everybody else." And that is a daunting task.

The screens do help. Walking past those covered computers, it is almost impossible to look over a user's shoulder and sneak a glance without grinding a thigh on their back. The monitors sit nearly out of sight, sunken below the keyboard at knee level, so that the user looks through a square hole in a custom-designed $700 table. The images on the screen are hidden from public view beneath a black plastic hood ($75 a pop) that hangs over the computer like a baseball cap bill. The scene is eerily reminiscent of those old 5-cent peep shows on Broadway.

But that doesn't mean the problem is solved. On a recent summer afternoon, a reporter saw two library patrons scrolling through galleries of hardcore images on computers without screens. Perhaps the type of person who watches sex videos in public doesn't care enough to take his business to the third, fourth, or fifth floor, where the computers with privacy screens are placed.

The accessibility of Internet porn in libraries has been a contentious issue for years. Dan Kleinman, a watchdog with SafeLibraries, thinks the screens are a cop-out that defend the act of watching porn in public. Every library, he says, should have Internet filters to block out the filth.

In 2006, the ACLU sued North Central Regional Library District in Washington for filtering its public computers. A judge ruled in favor of the library in April, which wasn't too surprising, considering the Supreme Court determined in 2003 that libraries have the right to block inappropriate material on their computers.

To the ACLU, this fight isn't about porn. The problem is filters. Mankind can pack 1,000 songs onto a cell phone, but has not yet invented an Internet filter that blocks pornography without blocking many reproductive rights, LGBT, and teen suicide prevention websites. Kleinman argues that people who run into unintentional blocks can simply ask a librarian to lift the filter.

However, that compromise might discourage people from logging onto those sensitive pages in the first place, Northern California ACLU attorney Linda Lye counters. "It shifts the burden onto the user," she says, "unnecessarily stigmatizing the person looking for the information."

Not that the privacy screens completely remove stigmatization. Those 18 computers, the librarian noted, draw exhibitionists like the ninth inning at AT&T Park draws seagulls.

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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