This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 5, 1995

July 5, 1997 - cybersmut

After six months of work, I've finally resolved some computer security issues. I'm ready to put out a new public tool for searching the Internet.

And - wouldn't you know it? - in the past two weeks debate has erupted across the nation about "cyber porn" - pornography available through the Internet.

Recently, in fact, Senator Exon has sponsored a "Communications Decency Act" which would make it illegal to transmit any "indecent" material across the Internet. The Senate passed this, too, by 84-16, although Newt Gingrich has since called this a clear violation of the First Amendment, and he's right.

For one thing, this is exactly like holding the phone company responsible for obscene phone calls. The problem isn't the phone system, the problem is some of the people who use it. If the phone system were to be held responsible for the content of its traffic, it would have to monitor every single conversation to make sure nobody was breaking the law.

For another, while it is certainly possible to find lascivious talk on the Internet, it won't jump out of your computer at you. You have to go looking for it. Most people don't. (A survey, cited in a recent Time cover story, claims close to a million pornographic images, messages, and short stories are out there - although use of such content accounts for less than a third of one percent of all Internet activity.)

For many people, the question is "how do we prevent the exposure of dubious material to children?" If we can't do it through legal means, can we do it through technology - somehow automatically block the availability of racier content? Right now, the answer is no.

So what's left? - as always, involved parents. We need to pay attention to what our children are doing. We need to communicate our values to their offspring, and the need for sensible precautions. Just as we remind our children not to give their names to people who call them on the telephone, or get into cars with strangers, we need to tell them to stay away from some kinds of electronic places, and not to respond to e-mail from people they don't know. The answer is not to outlaw telephones, automobiles, or computer networks.

Does Internet access belong in a public library at all? Library staff have been talking about this for some time now. On occasion, we have found our connection to be indispensable, particularly for connecting to other library catalogs or for tracking down some kinds of government information.

There are disadvantages, too. The Internet is sometimes stupefyingly slow. At certain "peak" times of the day, connections don't go through at all.

At present, our Internet connection is text-based only. That is, it won't display pictures, just words. Right now, that's okay by me. A "dumb terminal" is cheaper and far faster than a graphic workstation. Too, this may help to allay parents' fears about pornography on the Internet. While children might indeed saunter over to look at an image left displayed on a public terminal, they're far less likely to stand by a terminal and read multiple screens describing the same thing.

What is most troubling to librarians is that there's so little quality control on the Internet. While some of it is spectacularly good, the Internet is just so vast that it's impossible in advance to know how good a particular source may be. Fortunately, that's starting to change, as a few reputable sources are establishing themselves in the new environment - many of them, libraries.

I've concluded that the provision of Internet access is fast approaching a basic expectation for public library service. But with this new service will have to come a public understanding that, much like the variety of printed materials, much like the world itself, the Internet is a mixed bag. It won't all be - it can't all be - appropriate for elementary school students.

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