Schools Must Reveal Internet Logs, Judge Says
In a novel legal case that has raised privacy concerns about online education, a New Hampshire judge has ruled that a parent may inspect logs of Internet sites visited by students and school employees.
James M. Knight, a plumbing and heating contractor and father of four in Exeter, sued his local elementary and secondary school districts earlier this year after they refused his request to view the information. The logs list every Internet site visited by the districts' computers, although they generally do not record personal information about which students visited which sites.
In a Nov. 2 decision, state Superior Court Justice Gillian L. Abramson of Rockingham County ruled that Mr. Knight has a right under a state statute known as the Right-to-Know Law to view the Internet logs as long as administrators redacted, or removed, any information that would identify students.
"The court finds that the records contained in the redacted [Internet history-log files] comprise statistical information" not exempt from the Right-to-Know Law, Justice Abramson said.
The ruling comes as educators and policymakers across the nation, including members of Congress, are struggling with how to harness the enormous educational potential of the Internet without exposing students to objectionable material.
Mr. Knight said in an interview last week that he was not interested in learning about Internet use by individual students. Instead, he wanted to see whether students or school employees were using school computers to visit pornographic sites, hate sites, or other inappropriate areas, he said.
"Back in April, I received copies of Internet-use policies from the schools that concerned me," he said. "They said they were going to rely on children's experience with knowing what was appropriate rather than on any blocking or filtering software."
Mr. Knight asked the boards of the Exeter district, which has about 1,100 students in grades K-5, and the Exeter Regional Cooperative School District, which has some 2,800 students in grades 6- 12, to install such software, which limits access to sexually explicit or other inappropriate Internet sites. Critics of such software programs argue that they work imperfectly and sometimes erroneously block useful sites.
The districts refused to install blocking software. Later, the superintendent who serves both districts declined to provide Mr. Knight with the Internet logs, citing privacy issues. Concerned about the districts' Internet policies, Mr. Knight removed his four children from the public schools and placed them in private school.
He sued the two Exeter districts and a regional administrative unit to gain access to the Internet log files. In response to the suit, the defendants argued that some personal information might be recorded in the logs, such as when a student had visited an Internet site that required a logon and a password.
They also argued that the log files did not meet the state statute's definition of a public record, and that even if they did, they would be exempt because they include confidential student information. Further, the districts argued that release of the logs would violate state and federal laws prohibiting the disclosure of information intercepted electronically.
Justice Abramson rejected all of the defendants' arguments. She noted that the districts offered Internet access for educational purposes, not for personal entertainment, and that students were required to sign acceptable-use policies reminding them that their Internet usage would be monitored by school officials for compliance.
In a trial in September, computer experts for both Mr. Knight and the school districts agreed that a simple computer program could be used to remove any personal information from the Internet logs.
"Since the [districts] have the capacity to produce the record in a manner that does not reveal confidential information, the [Internet history-log file] is not exempt" under the law, she wrote.
State and federal privacy laws were not violated because students consent under the acceptable-use policies to allow administrators to monitor computer use and Internet sites visited, she added.
The districts have decided not to appeal the decision and plan to make the Internet logs available to Mr. Knight on computer disks after they figure out how to delete any confidential information.
"As you look at these Internet log files, it is not easy to write script that is going to scrub all confidential information," said Arthur Hanson, the superintendent of the administrative unit that serves the two Exeter districts. "My concern is that it has to be 100 percent clean."
Mr. Knight said he has received calls from around the country about his case.
"I felt I was vindicated looking for this information," he said. "If we can find out what books are on the shelves of the school library, or what textbooks are being used in the classroom, it seems consistent that we should be able to know where kids are going on the Internet."
Vol. 20, Issue 12, Page 5Published in Print: November 22, 2000, as Schools Must Reveal Internet Logs, Judge Says