July 11, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 18

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    Buss analyzes Internet law that limits children’s access to Web materials

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Emily Buss

    In 2001, Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires public libraries that receive federal funds to adopt Internet safety policies.

    Beginning this month, libraries will be required to certify that they have installed mandatory filtering software to block Internet access to children and adults to materials that “are obscene, contain child pornography or are deemed to be harmful to minors.”

    The legislation, which will have a significant effect on children’s access to information in libraries, is controversial. Librarians generally oppose the law, arguing that current filtering software is ineffective and that the federal government should not be setting Internet policies for local libraries.

    Emily Buss, Professor in the Law School and a nationally recognized expert on the rights of children and parents, recently was interviewed on WBEZ radio’s Odyssey program along with two librarians to discuss the impact of this law. (The complete transcript may be downloaded at http://www.wbez.org/service/ram/od/od_020327.ram.)

    “There are two different issues for children raised by the law,” Buss said. “First, does the law protect children from harm? And, second, does the law infringe children’s free speech rights?”

    Buss suggested that the answer to the first question is “probably not,” both because it is not clear that children suffer harm when they view these sites and because the blocking technology is not accurate enough to prevent all opportunities for viewing.

    Buss went on to suggest that the answer to the children’s rights question “is more complicated and interesting. There is no question that the Constitution imposes some limit on the government’s authority to control children’s speech and access to information. This might suggest that the blocking requirement violates their access rights.

    “But at the same time, parents have a Constitutional right to control their children’s upbringing, which certainly includes the right to control their children’s access to information through the Internet and other means. In light of parents’ ultimate authority over access, blocking requirements that reassure parents––whether they should be concerned about the exposure in the first place or reassured by the blocking rules––are likely to enhance children’s Internet access by increasing the chance that they will be allowed to explore the Internet with greater independence.”

    Many librarians have complained that the legislation turns them into surrogate parents or babysitters, but Buss disagrees. “There is middle ground. Many parents want to be assured that their children will not stumble upon sexually explicit material on the Internet. This, in turn, allows them to give their children more freedom to explore in the library, which is a very positive learning experience for children.”

    Buss also said that for many children of less affluent families, the library might offer them their only access to the Internet, so there is a need to focus on ways to encourage such opportunities. “Parents have total authority to tell children they can’t use a computer and they can’t go to the library. If these blocks get things roughly right and make the majority of parents more comfortable, encouraging their children to go to the library, that’s a very good outcome for children.”