Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Libraries on the Information Superhighway

Ethics Center facilitates discussion on Internet access.

The public library. To some patrons, it's a safe haven where they can send their children without fear they may be exposed to sexually explicit material. To others, it's a bastion of free speech, where access to information is completely unrestricted.

These two views of the library have come into conflict throughout the United States, as library Internet terminals make it easy for adults and children to find all kinds of information, from the educational to the pornographic. In Santa Clara County, the conflict raised such strong passions that the library system engaged the services of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to help moderate the debate.

"We wanted to bring a little bit of neutrality to a very heated and polarized discussion," said County Librarian Susan Fuller. The Ethics Center's charge was to hold a series of "listening meetings" with individuals and groups favoring limited and unrestricted access and to research the legal and technological aspects of the controversy.

This research culminated in a report to the library entitled "Access, Internet, and Public Libraries." "Our major objective was to listen to all the voices and make sure all were recorded accurately so that people would know the facts of the case, the interests at stake, and potential solutions," said Thomas Shanks, S.J., executive director of the Ethics Center and one of the report's authors.

Although the report did not urge the library to adopt any particular solution, Patricia Williams, chair of the library's decision-making body, the Joint Powers Authority, said the JPA considered information from "Access, Internet, and Public Libraries," as well as a separate report prepared by county librarians.

At an October meeting, the JPA decided to let stand the library's already existing policy of open access. The JPA also voted to continue various educational programs about the Internet for parents and children and to provide some computer stations with CD-ROM alternatives for children whose parents do not want them to have unrestricted access to the Net. In addition, the JPA instituted a process for keeping up to date on technological advances in this area.

Finally, according to Santa Clara County Counsel Anne Ravel, the library will ask for a court ruling on constitutional issues related to possible limits on open access for minors.

Seeking a legal opinion was one of the Ethics Center's recommendations along with various suggestions about improving the decision-making process. "The Ethics Center's participation helped us to see that whichever way we decided, we had to accommodate the other side-not give in, but really listen to the concerns that were being raised," said Williams.

"No one is for pornography," she continued, "and everyone is in favor of the First Amendment. When these values began to clash, we wanted to take the process out of the political arena. To explore public policy issues such as these, it's important to legitimately gather data and seek consensus."

Besides gathering data, the Ethics Center report also detailed 19 possible solutions to the conflict. According to co-author Barry Stenger, director of ethics programs at the Center, "Each of the solutions we outlined gives practical expression to fundamental values, many of which have come into conflict."

For example, he explained, a choice to install filtering software would mean a library was willing to accept some loss in access to information because competing values, such as the need to protect children, took precedence.

"If a library chose not to install filters, it could be affirming a fundamental position that decries censorship, or it could be admitting the limits of filtering-software packages at this stage in their development," he said.

Fuller, who, with other librarians, favored open access, felt the Center's report represented both sides fairly. "We wanted to make sure all points were expressed, so the JPA, as they deliberated, could see the wide range of viewpoints on this issue. That's one place where the Ethics Center definitely succeeded," she said.

On the other side, Sandi Zappa, founder of Keep Internet Decent & Safe (KIDS), said she was disappointed in the report, which, she said, "took on an air of authority when I don't believe the Center had time to delve into the issues deeply enough to do an adequate job." Zappa said the report does not fairly portray what can be accomplished with the new generation of software filters and does not accurately reflect the law in this area.

Addressing the legal questions, Shanks said the Center consulted with lawyers and faculty at SCU's law school. In addition, representatives of the ACLU, as well as other attorneys, made presentations during the public debate. "There is no agreement on how current law should be applied to the Internet, which is why we recommended that the library seek a court decision to clarify the legal issues," Shanks said.

"There is one thing I'm certain of after two years of research in this area: You will find people of good faith on both sides of this issue," Shanks continued. "The Center's report does not say who is right; it is intended to provide a resource for our community and others as they debate this issue."

"Access, Internet, and Public Libraries" is posted on the Center's Web site, the Ethics Connection (