Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Executive Summary

The Internet provides unprecedented access to information. In addition, this new medium allows a widening number of people to "publish" their views. Advocates see the Internet as the virtual embodiment of the democratic ideal of free speech.

Yet, as they have everywhere else, those interested in the shadier side of life--pornography, gambling, hate speech, bomb making, and so on- have set up shop on the Internet. This has some parents, who would otherwise love to grant their children free access to this remarkable information resource, concerned.

Can both of these points of view--each representing positive values- be accommodated in the public libraries? Can we reaffirm open access as central to the role of the library and the librarian in the 21st century while at the same time providing reasonable accommodation for parents who do not want their children to display or consume sexually-explicit Internet images in the public library?

During summer 1997, the Santa Clara County Library System engaged the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, as an independent and neutral third-party organization, to research the facts and opinions around this question.

The Center's process included focused discussions with all the major stakeholders in the controversy, testing various approaches to restricted access, and traditional research. The methodology followed the Center's framework for ethical decision-making, which begins by focusing on the facts of the case, the interests at stake, and the various available actions.

After listening carefully to representatives from all sides, the Center determined that stakeholders had the following concerns:

Advocates of Limited Access--Protection of children is the core value among members of this group. Since it is illegal to distribute pornography to minors, they ask why it should be legal for minors to have access to this material via the Internet in public libraries. Even if providing such access is legal, they ask if it is the right thing to do.

Librarians--Librarians see their primary role as providing free and equal access to all information for all patrons, regardless of age. They do not see themselves as censors or surrogate parents.

Advocates of Open Access--Members of this group oppose the idea of librarians or filtering software choosing what everyone's children can and cannot read. They focused on parental responsibility for guiding a child in his or her use of the Internet.

The July Supreme Court CDA decision gives Constitutional protection to the Internet for now. The definitions of "illegal pornography," as well as "obscenity," "indecency," and "harmful matters" on the Internet require more study.

Filtering software has improved, and puts more control in the hands of the network user. All companies rely on computer programs to select most of the blocked sites. Exact selection methods are considered trade secrets. Tests show some useful information continues to be blocked, as are many sexually-explicit sites.

The Markkula Center was charged with providing useful information for the County Library System, the Citizen's Advisory Council, and the Joint Powers Authority as they attempt to reach a thoughtful resolution of this complex issue. We list five questions decision-makers can ask themselves in order to make a good decision. We also provide an unrated list of 19 suggested solutions to this problem.

In terms of recommendations, the Center's suggestions focus on process, although one recommendation is that the Library seek a legal opinion from the courts on this matter.

The Center does not recommend additional public deliberations as the opposing sides appear to have such fixed and negative impressions of each other that the kind of openness required for productive debate is precluded. The Center does recommend that the libraries engage in efforts to better inform the public about their role.

Further, the libraries should educate children about safety prior to their first use of the Web. In addition, the Center suggests that the County Libraries develop alternatives to the Internet that are attractive to young children yet still provide computer skills.

Whatever position the Library system adopts, the Center urges the Library to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the other side and continue to seek alternative solutions that address those concerns.

Finally, we encourage all sides of this issue to learn from this experience so we can heal the divide this issue has caused and build a stronger community committed to the common good.

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