On Tuesday night, October 21, I stepped onto the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut International Airport. An hour before, en route to Ho Chi Minh City, a flight attendant dressed in a neon-pink ao dai had handed me a customs declaration form on which to list the cash and other valuables I intended to bring into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The form was simple, its instructions clear. In addition to an accounting of my U.S. dollars and any electronic equipment, I was to list all publications, films, or music I carried that might be deemed "cultural materials unsuitable to Vietnamese society."
In one of my suitcases, I had a number of books on indexing and cataloging, on computer networking and library automation. For the next eight months, I would be using this information to help a Vietnamese university library plan and prepare for a connection to the Internet.
With my letter of invitation from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training, I didn't expect any problems bringing these materials through customs.
There was, however, the matter of a copy of Walden and a cassette tape of music by Prince and the Revolution.
Twelve hours earlier, on the other side of the planet, in Loudoun County, Virginia, yet another body politic had declared certain cultural materials unsuitable to society. The Library Board there had voted 5 to 4 to place restrictions on the use of Internet access in an attempt to keep library users from viewing "pornography or obscene material."
In order to enforce this policy, Loudoun County Library computers will run software designed to prohibit access to any World Wide Web pages that display sexually explicit material.
Also, children under the age of 18 must have written permission from a parent or guardian before they can access any of the filtered information on the library computers.>[? The Loudoun County Library Board and the Vietnamese Politburo have a great deal in common. This past spring, the Politburo issued a directive calling for the Communist Party here to "constantly check and control the use of the Internet." They warned that the World Wide Web could be used to promote "unhealthy lifestyles and cultural values."
The Vietnamese General Department of Post and Telecommunications, in charge of overseeing Internet connectivity here, installed a filtering program produced by U.S. software-maker Raptor. Even though there is no publicly available connection to the World Wide Web, the government is prepared for what might happen.
Perhaps the Loudoun County Library Board should consult with the Vietnamese government to compare notes on their efforts and to congratulate one another on their vigilance.
Apparently, however, neither governing body has consulted with the local library to do any basic research on the efficiency of filtering software. A recent survey by Consumer Reports found that "the Web changes too swiftly for even a full-time staff to maintain a complete list of adult sites."
The Internet Filter Assessment Project, headed by nationally known librarian Karen Schneider, has come to the same conclusion. Filtering software often only succeeds in making it more difficult to access information containing certain keywords. In an effort to block access to pornographic material, topics such as sexually transmitted diseases, marine sextants, and Essex County, Virginia, could potentially be blocked because they all contain those three magic letters, S-E-X.
Even the physical filters people try to put in place against the flow of information don't work all that well.
My copy of Thoreau made it into Vietnam. As it turns out, there's a copy of Walden on the shelves of Can Tho University Library, where I'm working.
Civil disobedience aside, Thoreau shared some of the same sentiments with regard to electronic means of communication held by both the Loudoun County Library Board and the Vietnamese Politburo.
"We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas," he wrote in Walden, "but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
I disagree. I believe that people in places as far removed from one another as Virginia and Vietnam have a great deal to say to one another. I also believe that the tools available through Internet technologies can allow that exchange to occur.
Indeed, I am more inclined to agree with Prince, though many of his lyrics would certainly not make it through an Internet filtering program. In one of his more innocent anthems, he sings of traveling "Around the World in a Day." Truly, I have found it to be an inspiring experience, and I hope to enable at least one Vietnamese library with the means to move information around the world in fractions of a second.
By the way, my tape of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince also made its way through customs and into the City Formerly Known As Saigon.