RealTime IT News

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.