See No Evil

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A few months ago, the company I work for two days a week hooked up all of our computer terminals to the Internet. Which meant that I was finally able to take my maiden voyage as a web surfer.

For a dyed-in-the-wool technophobe like me, though, the situation was roughly akin to being all dressed up and having no place to go.

All I could think of was Scene's site, so that's where I went first. It looked pretty cool, I've gotta admit--but after clicking back and forth between "Reality Check" and the home page a half-dozen times, I was ready to move on.

But to where?
Then I remembered reading about this chick, Jennifer something-or-other, who maintains a site that consists of nothing more than her own inconsequential life--as lived in front of a web camera that's kept running round the clock. A sort of nonfiction Truman Show, as it were.

Definitely worth checking out, I decided.
My breath quickening at the thought that she might just be getting ready to step into the shower, I punched in "jennycam"--followed, of course, by the standard web domain extension (hey, I may be a 'Net neophyte, but already I'm hip to the jargon) "dot-com." And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but these ominous words:

"Warning! You are about to enter Jenny's Playhouse.
"This site has material of an extremely graphic adult nature. If you are not 18 years of age or older, YOU MUST LEAVE THIS SITE NOW!"

Naturally, I got outta there posthaste.
Whew! I told myself, hurrying off to wash my hands. What if the boss had been looking over your shoulder?

The next day, I dug out the magazine article and discovered that my quarry spells her nickname with an "i" rather than a "y." Moreover, her site isn't a "com"--it's an "org."

Which just goes to show how easy it is to inadvertently take the plunge into cyberspace pornography. Navigating the 'Net is tricky business, and it's no wonder so many parents are worried about what their kids might come across.

That concern, as those of you who keep up with the news probably know, has spelled controversy for public libraries here in Northeast Ohio.

In Lakewood last year, staffers called the cops to come and arrest a 49-year-old Strongsville man who was using the library computer to call up photos from a website devoted to what its operator claims is "the natural beauty, grace, and poetry" of nude young boys.

The librarians' intrusive action--which, ironically, came just a week after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act on the grounds that (radical concept!) it's up to parents to monitor what their children can view on the Internet--alarmed the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union. And rightly so.

"Our concern," explained ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Chris Link, "is how far will the libraries go in letting governmental agencies know what you're looking at on the computer?"

Had the little old lady who ran my elementary school's library been thus inclined, when she caught a group of us third-grade boys giggling over those full-color photos of bare-bosomed African tribeswomen that National Geographic always managed to work into every issue back in the '50s (an experience that may or may not account for my current breast fixation), I'd probably still be serving hard time.

Fortunately, though, other public libraries in the area see their mission in a somewhat different light. For them, it's not about acting as police informant but rather providing access to information.

More or less.
The Cuyahoga County system allows all patrons text-only access to the 'Net, but requires written parental consent for anyone under the age of eighteen who wants to view graphic images. Which means, theoretically, that kids can read about sex acts all they want; they just can't see pictures of them being performed.

And down in Medina County, library trustees voted early last year to maintain open Internet access, with the proviso that anybody calling up "offensive" sites could be asked to stop and ejected if they refuse--a "tap on the shoulder" policy the Ohio ACLU has decried because, in effect, it turns librarians into "government censors."

As imperfect as these solutions may be, at least neither county system has given in to the strident demands of a few fearful parents that they install so-called "filtering" software to protect the innocence of the young. A good thing, since a federal judge in Virginia recently ruled that a public library's use of a porn-screening computer program is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who happens to be a former librarian, wrote that the Loudon County library's installation of such a filter "offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment."

Though I can't speak from experience, I'd imagine that trying to navigate around these filters--which can prevent access to information on one of the most prevalent forms of cancer, say, by blocking all sites containing the word "breast"--is even more frustrating than trying to watch a film that's been "cleaned up" for television.

I happened to catch Forrest Gump for the first time the other night, and near the end of ABC's telecast--which is to say, after ten o'clock, when any kids whose ears are too tender for the movie's mild profanities should've long since been in bed--Forrest runs through a pile of doggy doo-doo, inspiring a passerby to create the bumper sticker that probably every man, woman, and child in America has come upon on some beater at least once in recent years. Only the network censors had gone in with their computer airbrush and removed the first two letters, so that the thing read: "IT HAPPENS"!

Which, of course, not only ruined the tie-in with history that constitutes this film's central gimmick, but rendered the pithy epigram utterly meaningless as well. You can just hear the question popping up in living rooms all across the country: "'IT HAPPENS'? What the hell is 'it'?"

Hopefully, Judge Brinkema's decision will serve as a precedent for libraries all across the country.

As one Medina father put it in a local paper last month: "Rather than attempt to trample on the First Amendment rights of other library patrons ..., I supervise my children's visits to the library and the Internet.

"That is my responsibility ... and my privilege. Frankly, I cannot fathom why any parent would be unwilling to do the same."

David Sowd's e-mail address: [email protected]

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