CLEARWATER -Despite having a budget so limited that it borrows from the materials fund to finance the continued operation of the Beach branch, the Clearwater Library System has rejected a source of Federal funds that in the recent past provided the City with over $16 thousand per year. In 2004, those Federal Funds had a string attached, one that Library Director John Szabo was loathe to accept.
The Federal dollars in question are called Universal Service, or E-rate funds. Universal Service was mandated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with the goal of promoting access to advanced telecommunications services for all schools, classrooms, health care providers and libraries.
The funds are collected from providers of telecommunications services, who generally pass-through those costs to their subscribers as a fee on their bill: "Federal Universal Service Fee" in Verizon's case, or Universal Connectivity Charge in the case of AT&T Wireless, for example.
The Clearwater Library System benefited from E-rate funding from 1998 through 2003, receiving a total of nearly $100 thousand in Telecommunications Services and Internet Access discounts. But Library Director John Szabo decided not to apply for the E-rate funds for 2004. The reason? CIPA, the Children's Internet Protection Act.
The CIPA Act was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by the President in December 2000. In order to be eligible for E-rate funds, CIPA required that a Library must have in place an Internet safety policy for minors, and must implement an Internet access filter which protects against visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.
Szabo claimed that implementing the filters required by CIPA was a bad business case. He estimated the cost of implementing filtering for all 140 of the Library's public access computers at $50,000, and said that a recent reconfiguration of the City's internal network would reduce the Library's E-rate return to only $9,000.
But other area libraries have found less costly Internet filtering solutions. The Tampa Bay Library Consortium, for example, spent a total of $17,000 for computer hardware and a 3-year software license that provides CIPA-compliant filtering for 214 computers, according to Executive Director Charlie Parker. That works out to less than $30 per computer per year. Applying that rate to Clearwater's 140 public access computers, it would cost less than $4200 per year for the Clearwater Library System to comply with CIPA, far less than Szabo's $50,000 estimate.
The Tampa Bay Library Consortium offers its Internet access and filtering as a service to its member libraries. Both the Tarpon Springs and Safety Harbor libraries use the service. Susan Delmas, Director of the Tarpon Springs Library, has been happy with the TBLC service. Tarpon Springs receives about $3000 per year in E-rate funds, she said, adding, "Every little bit helps." Lana Bullian, Director of the Safety Harbor Library, said that the TBLC filtering service has been both flexible and effective. Last year Safety Harbor received $2647 in E-rate funds; "You try to do the best you can with the dollars you have," she said.
The Saint Petersburg Library took a different approach, filtering Internet access with its own server and software license. Library Director Mary Gaines said that her organization receives about $56,000 per year in E-rate funds, and it costs less than $5000 per year for the license for the Web Sense software that performs the filtering.
But in addition to what he sees as a bad business case, Szabo doesn't think filtering is necessary in Clearwater's Library System. He said, "We have not seen a reason to filter. If people were accessing inappropriate materials, I'd know about it, Horne would know about it, and the Council would know about it."
But a Library page at the North Greenwood Branch has witnessed 3 recent instances of inappropriate materials being accessed, once by an adult and twice by children. The page, who wished to remain anonymous, confronted the patrons and they either left the facility or stopped accessing the inappropriate material. Szabo was unaware of those incidents and when asked what his employees have been directed to do in such circumstances, he said, "I rely on their professionalism and common sense to deal with many situations and issues."
Szabo's approach is in stark contrast to that taken by the City of Saint Petersburg. Library Director Mary Gaines said that the St. Pete Library has been filtering Internet access long before CIPA required it; "We wanted a secure area for our clientele, kids and adults included." St. Pete also has a very clear Internet access policy regarding inappropriate materials; it reads, "Accessing pornographic or otherwise objectionable material at the workstation is prohibited." The Clearwater Library System's Internet Acceptable Use Policy statement contains no such explicit prohibition.
While Szabo said that City Manager Bill Horne is aware that the Library does not filter Internet access, he does not plan to initiate a public discussion on this issue with the City Council, the ultimate policy makers; "There's not a significant issue that would warrant that," he said.
What do you think? We posed the following question to our online readers:
Should the Clearwater Library System filter public internet access in compliance with CIPA, and re-apply for Federal E-rate funding?
The result was:
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