A bill that would require schools and libraries receiving eRate discounts to install filtering software was the subject of heated debate at a Senate hearing last month. In an effort to compromise between the bill’s supporters and detractors, the Clinton administration has urged the FCC to require “acceptable use policies” instead of filters.

In an April 8 letter to the FCC, Larry Irving, chief of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said schools and libraries should have to adopt policies to shield children from inappropriate material on the internet in exchange for receiving discounts.

But “the federal government should not mandate a particular type of technology, such as filtering or blocking software,” Irving said. Instead, it should require acceptable use policies. Such policies would “offer reasonable assurances to parents that safeguards will be in place in the school and library setting that permit users to be empowered to have educational experiences consistent with their values.”

Irving’s letter was prompted by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (S. 97), a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C. The bill is intended to shield minors from sexually explicit material by requiring schools and libraries that receive eRate discounts to install software to block access to such sites.

The bill would require schools to install the software on all computers with internet access. Libraries would have to install the software on at least one computer for use by children. However, the bill recommends no specific blocking device and would let schools, school boards, libraries, or other local authorities decide what material should or should not be filtered.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing March 4, members of the committee heard both sides of the debate.

“This legislation . . . is an absolute necessity,” said Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families. “The libraries and the schools are not going to use these technologies unless someone makes them do it.”

Others argued that the measure would undermine efforts by local communities to solve the issue.

“Congress must understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution that the federal government can impose that is better or more thoughtful than the solutions communities adopt,” Candace Morgan, associate director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Washington, told the committee.

The hearing featured a testy exchange between Ms. Morgan and Sen. McCain, who disagreed with the librarian’s contention that the bill would require schools and libraries to have the filtering software up and running at all times.

“Your testimony does not coincide with what the intent and the language of the legislation says,” snapped McCain. “I’m sorry that you would not read English the same way that everybody else does.”

McCain said it is “absolutely false” that his bill would require the software to be used and added that if a library did not want to use the software then “don’t use it.” He said his bill would require only that computers have the internet filtering software installed.

For some critics of the bill, however, the real focus of concern is how they would pay for the filters.

“While we commend Sen. McCain for taking steps to protect children and for making it a local decision what to filter, it’s still an unfunded mandate,” said Kari Arfstrom, a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators.

Filtering software and firewalls themselves are not eligible for eRate discounts, according to the SLD. But filtering technology that is bundled into the standard price of eligible equipment—such as an internet file server that comes with an integrated, pre-installed filtering solution—may be covered. Schools and libraries also could use their savings from the eRate to purchase and install filtering software, if necessary.

From the reaction of the Senate committee members, it appears momentum may be building toward support for McCain’s legislation. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who last year offered an “acceptable use policy” alternative to McCain’s bill, said he has agreed to co-sponsor S. 97 this year. After expressing great concern that the First Amendment not be trampled in the process of shielding children from the seamy side of the internet, Burns said, “We will get this right.”

Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., is sponsoring a companion measure to McCain’s bill in the House of Representatives. Unlike McCain’s bill, however, Rep. Franks’ version would require libraries to install filtering software on all computers that have access to the internet.