Do Online Databases Filter Out Enough Inappropriate Material?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — July 14, 2017 6 min read
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A recent dispute over an electronic database used in thousands of schools in the U.S. is a reminder of the precarious balance between access and censorship—especially now that more teachers and schools are using primary sources and online materials to supplement or replace textbooks.

The dispute centers on EBSCO, an online databases and resources company with programs that are used in tens of thousands of schools around the world. Schools and districts pay thousands of dollars for access to the databases, some of which were developed specifically for K-12 students and schools. EBSCO says it aims to “select the most appropriate, educationally-valuable content to include in these databases without imposing EBSCO beliefs or biases in the selection process.”

But now, critics say that students may have been able to access explicit content through the database. A Colorado family notified an anti-pornography group, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, after the parents found articles with links to sexual content on their teenaged daughter’s EBSCO account. (NCOSE was formerly known as Morality in Media.) The NCOSE placed EBSCO on its “Dirty Dozen List” ‐a list of organizations it describes as “major contributors to sexual exploitation,” and which, this year, also included the American Library Association and the online-retailer

‘Schools have no idea’

NCOSE’s executive director, Dawn Hawkins, said she was shocked to find that EBSCO databases could be used to search for information about sexual terms. Some articles found in the databases, including those in publications like Men’s Health, included articles with sexual, but not pornographic, content; others included active links to websites that included pornography, she said.

“Schools have no idea this is happening,” Hawkins said, arguing that administrators sign up for EBSCO’s products assuming they are fully vetted and age-appropriate. She said students who see such material might assume it is school-approved and not report it to administrators or parents.

In an email, EBSCO spokeswoman Kathleen McEvoy said that EBSCO was not aware of any instances of students using its databases to access pornography or other explicit materials. She said she believed that the searches NCOSE was concerned about had been conducted by adults actively searching for graphic materials, often on home computers that don’t have the kinds of controls and filters common on school computers.

But, she said, EBSCO had identified some issues after hearing of NCOSE’s concerns and made changes to their processes and programs—including removing active links in some articles in the database, such as those NCOSE found linking to pornography sites — after hearing of the Colorado case. McEvoy said that the company took the NCOSE’s concerns seriously and is “disheartened” to be described as aiding in exploitation.

It’s difficult to know whether other online repositories aimed at K-12 students might face similar criticisms. The NCOSE hasn’t examined other online databases used in schools.

It’s also unclear how many schools and districts use the database; EBSCO says that information is proprietary.

Legal Issues

Questions of just what materials students should be able to access through their computers has been debated basically as long as computers have been available in schools. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called United States v. the American Library Association, Inc. that schools could not receive federal funding for internet access unless they had filters to screen out pornography installed.

James LaRue, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said he did not believe the search results that NCOSE objects to would run afoul of that court ruling.

He argued that students have a right to receive information, even about topics some groups deign inappropriate, he said. He said NCOSE seems to aim to get rid of any piece of content “that will offend any parent in America.” In a country with diverse standards, that’s a near-impossible task.

“I feel they’re certainly within their rights to advocate for greater restrictions on access to sexual content, but my observation is, they often do this by pushing for filters or suppression of content,” LaRue said. “You move from, ‘I have my standards,’ to ‘I’m trying to impose those standards on every other family.’ That’s where the ALA would say that that starts to look like censorship.”

He said he would err on the side of teaching students how to weed through and understand the wide array of information online instead of relying on filters, which, he said, are often imperfect anyway.

Of the ALA’s placement on the anti-pornography group’s “Dirty Dozen” list, LaRue said, “I’m happy to go pick [an award] up.”

New systems at EBSCO

In her email, McEvoy said EBSCO had taken steps to improve its filtering in recent months, including removing several unspecified publications from its school databases (its database content is also proprietary), improving systems to block certain search terms, and removing links to third-party sites. It’s also added new filters and tools to allow librarians to exclude other content at their discretion.

Hawkins said that while there has been improvement, the problem had not been solved. She said that she had conducted searches on the school databases even after EBSCO made those changes, and that, while there were improvements, some inappropriate material could still be found. She pointed to articles in magazines about different sexual practices like bondage. “We’d argue that [articles such as these are] not tools for sex education,” she said.

McEvoy said some schools and districts provide students with access to databases and resources that aren’t specifically targeted to K-12 students—sometimes intentionally, in order to grant access to more materials, and sometimes unintentionally. EBSCO had not been able to replicate the searches the NCOSE raised concerns about, she added.

“We understand how concerning the inflammatory language used here—such as pornography in schools—can be to parents and educators and we understand that NCOSE wants to rally attention to its cause, but we are working with them and believe these latest findings do not accurately reflect the content included in Primary Search and Middle Search Plus [databases used in elementary and middle schools],” McEvoy wrote. “We are confident that the curation process and the editorial processes we have in place would prevent the results NCOSE claims to have found from appearing in Primary Search and Middle Search Plus.”

Districts respond

In Colorado, a CBS station reported that the Adams 12 Five Star school district, near Denver, had shut down access to its EBSCO databases when they realized some inappropriate materials could be accessed through it. The district then worked with EBSCO to remove objectionable materials. Another district, Cherry Creek, said it had asked EBSCO to block content in “objectionable periodicals” but said it would continue to contract with EBSCO in order to access its valuable research materials. EBSCO confirmed that it had worked with both districts to make sure they understood which databases students had access to.

The concerned parents told CBS that while they knew pornographic and sexual information is already accessible online to savvy teens, they are concerned that it is provided through an in-school service like EBSCO.

The ALA’s LaRue, however, expressed disbelief that the problem was widespread.

“Trust me,” he said. “The problem isn’t that teenagers are doing too much library research.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.