Controversial Web Filtering Storms Schools

As schools across the nation get settled into the academic year, students
may notice something strange about accessing the Internet on campus
computers, as some sites, whether pornographic or not, simply may not load.


Under the Children’s Internet
Protection Act
, which takes effect this school year, the use of Web
filters is mandated in order for most publicly funded schools to receive
so-called e-rate funds for Internet access and internal connections.


While many are praising the effort to rid schools of offensive material,
civil liberty groups, teachers, and students around the nation are up in
arms about the filters, asserting that the software is ineffective, often
blocking access to sites needed for study.


“Schools are spending tens of thousands of dollars implementing these faulty
software systems,” said Stephanie Elizondo Griest, a representative of Free Expression Policy Project. “The
computer hack people are deciding what is filtered and what is not, so you
also get their personal biases in it.”


Griest cites the blocking of two broad categories, sexuality and cults, as
examples of why the systems simply don’t work. By blocking these
categories, she asserts that students will be barred from semi-related sites
that may provide important information for students, such as pages about
homosexuality or alternative religions like Wicca.


David Burt, former pro-filtering activist, and current public relations
manager for Seattle, Wash.-based Web filtering company N2H2, notes, however,
that filtering was a staple in the public school system well before CIPA.
Citing a May 2001 study, Burt asserts that approximately 75 percent of public
schools were already using filtering technology voluntarily.


“Schools have adopted filters on their own before CIPA went into affect
because they find filters useful as a way to manage Internet access in the
classroom,” said Burt. “Everybody in the filter industry agrees that
filters aren’t perfect, that there’s things that they miss and things they
block accidentally, but the consensus among filtering companies and among
our customers is that it is really minor problem that can relatively easily
be dealt with.”


Griest notes however that the faults in the filters are not the only problem
students are encountering as filters are unilaterally released upon the
school system. An unintended effect of the filters has been a widening gap
in access to information between those who have access to the Internet at
home and those who must access it through public computers.


“Students who have enough money, who have resources, can always go home and
get on their own personal computer without a filter and do what they need to
do, but students with more limited resources don’t have that option, and
that tends to affect minority students,” said Griest.


Statistics tend to agree with Griest. According to recent research
released by the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration
, despite a higher
growth rate in Internet use among Blacks and Hispanics in recent years,
these communities still remain far behind White and Asian populations in
home access to the Internet, especially among those earning less than
$35,000.


David Burt also sees filters creating a digital divide, but differs on
exactly where the dividing line occurs.


“Students that are required to use an Internet that is unfiltered don’t get
any protection, so I think there is some unfairness if you give unfiltered
access to children.”


According to Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, protection
is not necessarily the issue at hand.


“Imposing a filtering requirement on the public schools as a condition of
funding is a thinly veiled attempt at censorship and is fundamentally at
odds with the essence of the Internet, which is an amazing vehicle to make
huge arrays of information available to people, including school children,”
said Lieberman.


The executive director notes that the requirement displays a profound
disrespect for teachers and their ability to make decisions about how access
is regulated, as well as diminishing the students by undermining critical
thinking and inquiry.


Burt takes issue with the idea that CIPA is mandated, noting that is in
essence an offer from which schools are free to opt out.


Although the vast majority of schools have accepted CIPA’s requirements,
some schools indeed have chosen not to filter the content and simply deal
with the consequences.


The Eugene school district, located in Oregon, has chosen to forgo the
e-rate funds. According to Les Moore, director of computing and information
services for the Eugene school district, the move comes as a result of
discussion among an Internet Guidelines Committee with teachers and
administrators from elementary, middle and high schools, as well as
students, parents and central office personnel.


“The committee’s conclusion was that filtering is imperfect both in terms of
not filtering all undesirable sites and filtering legitimate sites,” said
Moore. “Therefore it gives a false sense of security and limits some valid
research. More importantly, the committee believes it is best to teach
responsible use and supervise.”


Moore admits, however, that the loss of the e-rate funds will not be of
great harm to the district. Because the school has not to date qualified or
received any e-rate funds for internal connections, they aren’t losing any
funds there. Additionally the Eugene school district is part of a consortium
that purchases Internet access and will only end up foregoing about $7,000
this year by not complying with CIPA. The loss in this case would probably
be less than the purchase, installation and administration of a
Web-filtering package.


This case, however, appears to be the anomaly, especially among larger
school districts where e-rate funds can be very significant.


Moore expects the debate to continue in his own district, both on moral and
financial grounds.


“If it becomes either a serious financial issue or we feel that we can no
longer supervise students effectively and students are accessing
inappropriate material, then we have the option of changing our decision in
the future,” said Moore.


Teachers, students, and parents will join the Free Expression Policy
Project, ACLU, and other civil liberties groups tomorrow in sponsoring
concurrent “Back to School Censorship” press events in Boston, San
Francisco, and New York to protest Web filtering.

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