Listen to the latest creative use for your tax dollars: providing free access to pornography for teens and the homeless.
At public libraries across the nation, Internet computer terminals intended for research are now being hogged by patrons searching for another kind of education. In the Los Angeles Central Library, for instance, the machines are regularly steered to online photos of naked women, digitized videos of sex acts and ribald chat-room discussions.
A few patrons even use stolen or made-up credit card numbers to visit pay-per-peep porn sites, according to a browser familiar with the scam.
Such practices have touched off a steaming debate.
"I can understand that some people might be upset," says Los Angeles City Librarian Susan Kent. "But to make the Internet unavailable because some might abuse it shuts off an entire universe of information for everyone else. It's throwing out the baby with the bathwater." Kent has decided against restrictions, as have county library systems in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
But other librarians support controls. "We said, `Wait a minute,"' says Orlando, Fla., library spokeswoman Marilyn Hoffman. "We're all for intellectual freedom and freedom of information, (but) we don't consider hard-core pornography as intellectual."
In Orlando, Boston and elsewhere, filter software is used to block access to Internet porn sites, which number in the hundreds or perhaps thousands. However, the filters also pose problems. For starters, they invariably block innocent World Wide Web sites.
They also might cause legal headaches. The American Civil Liberties Union is readying a lawsuit against Orlando's filtering policy. And last week, the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, which outlawed the display of indecent material at Internet sites that could be accessed by children.
Suddenly, library life has gotten complicated. In pre-computer days, patrons would go to the card catalog, look up "Bambi" and find a storybook about a baby deer. Now they can go to the library's Internet terminal, type in "Bambi" and get more than 9,000 references - from "Tammy's Home Page" where "Thumper and Flower come out to play" to "Bambi - one of our hot Cyber Sex Toy Play Things!"
Librarians who were once accustomed to reviewing books before putting them on the shelves now find the information superhighway is delivering goods they never would have ordered. Coping with that change has become "the issue of the moment" for libraries throughout the country, says a representative of the Chicago-based American Library Association.
Some librarians insist the porn problem has been blown out of proportion.
"There's more of it in the press than there is in actual libraries," says Caroline Oyama, a spokeswoman for the New York Public Library. Kent agrees, saying the focus on peep-show patrons diverts attention from the myriad educational wonders of the Internet.
"Pornography is a very small dimension," she says. "The Internet has some drawbacks, but there are so many more positive aspects." She mentions online magazines, cyber museums and job listings as a few of the resources not otherwise available to library visitors.
However, others say the Internet's potential as a research tool is being blunted by the inordinate amount of time that some users spend hunting for smut. Despite a 30-minute time limit on Internet use at the Los Angeles Library, for example, legitimate researchers sometimes have to wait in line because the machines are tied up by people perusing personal ads or X-rated chat rooms. Still, it's impossible to know how much time or money is devoted to porn because librarians don't monitor the terminals.
A reporter likewise had trouble estimating the extent of the problem during a recent visit because many computers are semi-private. But one of the sex browsers, an 18-year-old college student who declined to be identified (we'll call him Patron X), says he and at least half a dozen friends - plus assorted businessmen and "street people" - routinely cruise the Central Library Internet for porn.
That last part, computer-savvy homeless people, might seem hard to imagine, but Patron X says they're "really good at this.... We trade secrets."
One of the most prized tricks: finding Internet sites that post credit-card-number formulas that can be used to get into live-action Web sites where customers must pay up to $10 a minute to type instructions to a stripper and watch her perform as requested.
Librarian Kent says she is unaware of credit-card fraud on library computers and would report any such incidents to police. Also, a large online porn operator, Internet Entertainment Group, says it hasn't traced any credit fraud to libraries, although not all cases are traced.
Is there anything to stop children from seeing pornographic material on computers without filters? Not really, although the Los Angeles library is experimenting with "privacy screens" that prevent side-angle views of computer displays.
The Los Angeles County library system has adopted a slightly different tack. Users must show library cards and sign in with a librarian before using the computers. And children may log on only if their parents have signed a permission slip acknowledging that the library doesn't monitor or control Internet content.
The cost of Internet access varies. Some libraries are hooked into a network that pays a flat fee for unlimited Internet time. Others purchase phone time by the hour.
The Los Angeles city library system, which has more than 1,000 terminals at 68 branches, spends about $3,200 a month for Internet access, officials say. The county's non-networked computers cost about $2 an hour to run.
Kent says she realizes people might object to taxpayer-financed porno hunts and long-distance chat-room conversations. But she notes that libraries are filled with books that people find distasteful: "We probably have something to offend everyone."
Others, however, are willing to draw lines.
In February, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, reacting to news reports of angry parents, decreed that all city computers, including the library's, must have filtering programs to screen out Internet indecency. And Ohio's state Assembly just approved a bill that would mandate filter software on library Internet terminals.
But filters, which go by such names as Cyberpatrol and NetNanny, aren't a panacea. Some impede access to sites containing certain words, such as sex, thus inadvertently blocking research on Sussex, sextants and sextuplets. Others rely on lists of sites that evaluators consider objectionable.
None are foolproof, says Consumer Reports magazine. "Our conclusion was that you couldn't use one of these things and feel certain the child would not be able to go to adult sites," says Senior Editor Jeffrey Fox.
In California, where Internet access is available to patrons in 65% of the state's library systems, only 22% reported using filters in a recent survey by the State Library.
In other cases, the prospect of controversy has persuaded some libraries
to avoid the issue altogether. In the 1960s, Anaheim, Calif., was a battleground in the bitter war over sex education in schools. Since then, the city "has always been on the cautious side, and in a way, it's paid off," says central library manager Kevin Moore. "This community has traditionally been conservative."
So for now, Anaheim's lone Internet terminal is for staff use only.
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