Funding Stalemate Puts Internet-Filter Mandate on Hold

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A proposed federal requirement that schools and libraries install technological filters against pornography on children's access to the Internet—or lose federal technology funding—has been put on hold along with the rest of the spending bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

The temporary shelving of the voluminous bill last week was met with relief from some lobbyists for schools and libraries who have focused on the provision within it on Internet filtering.

"It's a horrible, horrible mandate that's going to result in many schools' having increased costs in the technology arena, for technology that doesn't even work," Dan Fuller, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, said last week before the postponement. He said the delay might give the opponents of the mandate time to regroup.

School lobbyists had been left out of the latest talks between the White House and congressional negotiators on the filtering provisions, which had themselves been overshadowed by tense negotiations on the bill's big-ticket education items, such as money for school construction, class-size initiatives, and after-school programs.

'Protection Measures'

An Oct. 30 version of the filtering language differed only slightly from the "discussion draft" that had been part of the funding bill since last summer. To receive technology funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or discounts through the federal E-rate program, school boards would have to select "technology protection measures" for filtering or blocking Internet access to materials deemed to be child pornography, obscene, or "harmful to minors." It would require schools to enforce policies to ensure the operation of the technology during any use of such computers by minors.

Groups that support the mandate include the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition of America, the National Law Center for Children and Families, and the American Family Association.

"We should make sure the computers purchased with tax dollars contain filters that would protect children from obscene and pornographic materials," said Heather Cirmo, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group based in Washington. "As long as computers are purchased with federal dollars, there should be a federal mandate."

Education and library groups—including the Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology in Education, the National PTA, and the National Education Association—argue that the choice of how or whether to install filters should be left up to local schools and libraries. Other groups, such as the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, maintain that mandatory filters would interfere with Internet users' free-speech rights, in part because filters often block out material that is not obscene or otherwise illegal.

Support for federally mandated filtering in schools was notably missing from the final recommendations issued by the federally created Commission on Online Child Protection on Oct. 20.

"The commission has concluded that no single technology or method will completely protect children from harmful material online," Don Telage, the chairman of the commission, said in a statement issued with the report.

The 18 congressionally appointed commission members—drawn from private industry, the federal government, and public-interest groups—instead called for an educational campaign to promote public awareness of filtering technologies and urged the adoption of "acceptable-use policies" to guide children's behavior online. They also advocated independent evaluation of child-protection technologies and stiffer law-enforcement efforts to investigate, report, and prosecute violations of federal and state obscenity laws, especially when children are victims.

School groups contend that complying with the proposed filtering mandate would entail completing more than 100 procedural steps. For a start, schools would have 120 days to buy and install the software on all their Internet-connected computers that are accessible to minors, and they would have new obligations to hold public meetings and certify their compliance with the filtering law, or risk losing federal technology funds. By next summer, districts would have to write "Internet-use policies" or modify their current policies to meet federal criteria.

Many schools already filter Internet access, especially at the high school and middle school levels, or make distinctions about when filtering is necessary.

The 2,700-student Monona Grove district, near Madison, Wis., filters access at its middle school and its high school, but not in its four elementary schools.

"We have so much supervision [at the elementary level], we decided we didn't need to," said Bill Herman, the district's technology director. "A kid's never on a computer if there's not a teacher at his right hand."

Rise in Filtering

A national survey of 400 teachers conducted early this year by Quality Education Data Inc. found that filtering is on the rise nationally—with 5 percent more teachers reporting the use of such software this year than they did in 1999. More than 90 percent of those teachers reported that their schools had some type of "acceptable-use policy" that governs users' behavior online.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., have been the main congressional proponents of the filtering legislation, with each having been the author of proposed legislation that contributed language to it. But a provision in Mr. Santorum's bill that would have given local schools the choice of installing filtering or writing a comprehensive policy on dealing with inappropriate content, or taking both steps, was omitted.

In an Oct. 20 statement, Mr. McCain said that he would not compromise on requiring schools to install filtering, but that the bill would leave it "entirely up to local communities and school boards to decide what technology to select and how that technology is used to screen out harmful material so that our children's minds aren't polluted."

Different brands of software filters and blockers work in various ways, but they generally screen the addresses of Web sites that users attempt to visit against lists of sites known to contain pornography, violence, "hate speech," or other "inappropriate" content. Filters also block certain words from appearing on computer screens.

Questions have been raised, however, about the accuracy and effectiveness of filtering systems, which have often been found to block sites that have useful educational information.

Peacefire, a Seattle-based advocacy group that opposes filtering, recently tested five filters against randomly selected lists of 1,000 Web sites and reported that between 20 percent and 80 percent of the blocked sites were blocked in error.

Officials in the software industry, while dismissing Peacefire's report as unscientific, acknowledge the technology is imperfect.

"Candidly, there's no silver bullet for filtering," said Mark Uncapher, a vice president of the Arlington-based Information Technology Association of America, a technology trade group, and the staff official of the ITAA's newly formed Committee on Internet Management and Safety. That panel will assist Internet-filtering companies in educating consumers about their products.

The ITAA is opposed to a federal mandate on school filtering, Mr. Uncapher said. "The difficulty of the legislation [requiring filtering] is that it implies that there is a product that can be taken of the shelf and put on a computer and do what the courts can't do—defining what's objectionable content and what's not," he said.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Pages 31, 37

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Funding Stalemate Puts Internet-Filter Mandate on Hold
Web Resources
  • Read a summary report of the Internet Filter Assessment Project, a study group whose purpose was "to take a hard look at Internet content filters from a librarian's point of view."
  • The Civic Mind outlines key legal issues relating to internet filters and freedom of speech and provides links to additional resources.
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