Canadian regulators, in a move also mandated by the U.S. Congress, have required the use of the electronic V-chip to allow viewers to block certain violent television programs.
So the document posted on Internet computerized bulletin boards last week as a news release from the Canadian Library Association seemed like a logical next step. Because parents also needed to stop children from "getting into books with adult themes," according to the posting, the library association was endorsing a kind of V-chip for the written word.
Using bar codes, it would be possible to rank books for sex, violence, drug use, and "alternative lifestyles." Parents could then set the maximum rating levels on each child's library card, preventing them from checking out unsuitable works.
"The problem, say most busy parents, is that kids can visit the local library and borrow anything they choose, regardless of their family's values," it said.
The prospect sounded too much like Big Brother to many librarians, who reacted immediately. Karen Adams, the association's executive director, says her electronic mailbox filled with messages from at least 100 outraged librarians.
The librarians hadn't noticed the April 1 date of the release. (Neither, at first, had a certain Internet-surfing reporter, who thought he had a hot scoop in hand.)
The early April Fool's "release" was actually written by David Jones, a computer scientist and president of the lobbying group Electronic Frontier Canada, which strongly opposes the V-chip. "I thought it was so over-the-top that people would get it," said Prof. Jones. "I hope [book-rating] never catches on. I'd probably be strung up if it did."
The parody may have backfired in that it sounded all too plausible. In Canada, TV programming this year is required to include coding for the V-chip. And a new U.S. law requires that the chips be installed in all TV sets sold in the U.S. by 1998.
Although Prof. Jones says he was inundated with e-mail from Internetters who "took it as an alert, rather than a joke," he also got a few messages from people who thought the rating was a fine idea.
The library association, which wasn't in on the gag, isn't upset. "If you read it carefully you could tell it was a joke," said Ms. Adams. "It's a testimonial to the fact that people just read the headlines."