Internet users at Baltimore County's public libraries may notice something different on the computers: a new program designed to filter pornography.
In the past few weeks, the county library system has installed the filters on its 350 public computers. The system is doing this in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that tied some federal funding for libraries to the use of the filters.
The ruling was widely criticized by free speech advocates and library directors, who say the problem of library patrons visiting obscene Web pages is overstated. Some Maryland library systems are not installing the filters, but others, including Baltimore County's and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, are going along to keep the federal money flowing.
"We can't afford not to do it," said Pratt spokeswoman Mona Rock, adding that the library system receives millions of dollars a year in federal grants to maintain its computer system.
She said the project to install filters on the Pratt's more than 400 public computers is to be completed by the fall.
Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County library, said the system reluctantly moved to install the filters. He said violations of the library's rules against calling up obscene Web sites are rare. A frequent criticism of computer filtering systems is that they can block legitimate research on such topics as breast cancer.
Nonetheless, Fish said, the county decided to install the filters so the library could receive the federal money. Last year, the county received $254,000 in federal grants toward Internet and telecommunications access, he said.
Fish said the filter being used in Baltimore County, iPrism, is geared toward minimizing restrictions on legitimate Internet use. The filter cost $8,000, he said.
Computers in areas of county libraries used only by children already were programmed to guard against obscene content, library officials said. The county library has had different filters on the other public computers for years, but they were not turned on unless the user requested. In compliance with the law, the filters are now on, but adults can turn them off with a few clicks of the mouse, officials said.
In Baltimore County, Internet users must sign in with their library card number, Fish said. He said the numbers are used to monitor whether users have exceeded time limits for computer use. Also, he said, if authorities suspect that one of the system's computers was used for illegal purposes, investigators can determine who was using the computer. He said the system does not keep records of card holders' Internet habits.
Fish said the county has required library card numbers for Internet use for at least five years. At the Pratt, the numbers have been required since June 1, Rock said. She also said the numbers are used to monitor how much time is spent on the Internet, and that records are not maintained.
The Supreme Court issued last week another ruling involving sexually explicit material and the Internet, but that decision has no direct effect on Internet use in libraries, an American Library Association official said. In the more recent ruling, the court barred the enforcement of the federal Child Online Protection Act of 1998, which would make it a crime for commercial Web sites to make explicit material available to minors.
The Children's Internet Protection Act, which set conditions for local libraries to receive federal money, was approved by Congress in 2000 and was immediately challenged by the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2001, the two groups, and other anti-censorship advocates, filed a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the law violated the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. The next year, a federal district court in Philadelphia agreed, invalidating the law.
The federal government then took the case to the Supreme Court, which by a 6-3 vote last year overturned the lower court's decision.
Explaining the Supreme Court's decision, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote, "The government here is not denying a benefit to anyone, but is instead simply insisting that public funds be spent for the purpose for which they are authorized."
Howard County's library system is eligible for no more than $2,000 in federal aid based on poverty indicators, said director Valerie Gross. Therefore, she said, the system does not plan to install filters. Similarly, the library system in affluent Montgomery County does not plan to install filters, a library official there said.
The Anne Arundel County library system expects to have filters on computers in all its branches by the fall, said spokeswoman Laurie L. Hayes.
Carroll County public libraries have required filters on all public computers since at least 1996, after they began offering Internet access, library officials there said. In January, the library installed a system that allows computer users to turn off the filter without a librarian's assistance, said Scott Reinhart, assistant director for operations for the system.
In Harford County, library officials customized filters on public computers to ensure that health information and art are not blocked, said Audra Caplan, the system's director. Adults may have the filters disabled, she said.
Sun staff writers Larry Carson, Jessie Parker, Patrick Tyler and Childs Walker contributed to this article.