IT Infrastructure

Internet Filtering Is Balancing Act For Many Schools

By Rhea R. Borja — January 16, 2002 7 min read
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Students in Clark County, Nev., can’t see whatever they want online, but they have some say in the matter. Those who want to view a Web site blocked by the district’s Internet filter can initiate a process to override it.

First, they must ask a teacher to notify the school’s network authority. That official then scrolls to the bottom of his computer screen and types in a request to unblock the site. Such a request notifies the district’s network administrator, who shoots an e-mail to the district’s nine-member Internet review panel.

Within 24 hours, the panel evaluates the disputed site and votes on whether to open it up.

It’s an approach that builds some flexibility into the district’s Internet filter, a tool that schools nationwide use because of concern for responsible computer use and student protection—and because it will soon be required under federal law.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires schools using federal funds for Internet use or connections to have filtering systems in place by July of this year, or risk losing federal education aid.

So far, 74 percent of the nation’s approximately 15,000 public school districts have installed Internet filters, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"[Filters] take part of the problem away,” said Lesley McLaughlin, the technology-services director for the 25,000-student Salt Lake City schools. “Kids or anyone else should not be exposed to anything” that is inappropriate online.

But the requirements of CIPA, as the law is known, worry some educators and have prompted a legal challenge. Critics say the law—enacted in 2000 as part of an education spending bill signed by President Clinton—violates the First Amendment, removes community control, and prevents students from using the Internet effectively. (New Law Directs Schools to Install Internet Filtering Devices, Jan. 10, 2001.)

A lawsuit filed by the Chicago-based American Library Association, which argues that the Internet filtering mandate is unconstitutional, is scheduled to be heard in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on March 25.

The law unnecessarily censors academic material and doesn’t help students deal with realities such as sex, death, and violence, said Marjorie Heins, the director of the Free Expression Policy Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, based in New York City.

“CIPA will cause a great deal of harm in the classrooms,” Ms. Heins contended.

Blocking Sites

The network review panel in Nevada’s 245,000-student Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas, has received 350 requests for changes in Web site access since its formation 2½ years ago.

The district uses software by N2H2, a Seattle- based company that claims the lion’s share of the K-12 filtering market, serving 25,000 schools with about 17 million students.

But Clark County school officials like to point out that they don’t rely just on filters.

“We realized that no filtering software is perfect,” said Karlene Lee, the district’s director of technology-development services. She mentioned other measures such as teacher monitoring and an “acceptable use” policy that all students must sign.

The district also encourages teachers to take a 16-hour professional-development class on responsible Internet instruction. And students who learn Internet etiquette can obtain an Internet “driver’s license,” which gives them special e-mail and Internet chat privileges. So far, Ms. Lee said, only a few students have violated the computer-access rules so seriously that they were stripped of their rights to use the Internet at school.

Other district-level technology directors use similar measures.

The first step is making students aware that there are real consequences to surfing inappropriate material on Web sites, said Ms. McLaughlin of the Salt Lake City schools.

To make sure all students are aware of those consequences, the district’s Internet-use policy is translated into nine languages. Violating the rules can mean permanent loss of school Internet use or suspension from school.

The Salt Lake City district participates in a state-sponsored filtering program run by the Utah Education Network, which provides technology to the state’s schools, libraries, and state agencies. The program also gives local school officials some flexibility to override the filters.

But local officials cannot open certain sites, such as those mentioning birth control, condoms, or abortion. Under state law, Utah teachers are not allowed to discuss those issues with students.

“We are a very conservative state,” Ms. McLaughlin said.

‘A False Sense of Security’

Still, some school districts—such as the Eugene School District 4J in Oregon—have refused to put in districtwide filters, citing both philosophical and logistical problems. Individual schools can use filters if they want to, though only one of the district’s four high schools does.

From a practical standpoint, filtering doesn’t work because it takes too much manpower and time, said Les Moore, the technology director for the 18,000-student district.

“The downsides are greater than the gains,” Mr. Moore said. “If filtering could be perfect, we would go ahead and filter. But as the filtering technology stands now, the cost of implementing it, and the financial responsibility we have, it’s not worth it.”

Plus, he said, “a filter gives a false sense of security to both the staff and the parents, and [they] may not be as vigilant in teaching responsible use and supervising students.”

It’s worth noting that the Eugene district isn’t required to filter. That’s because it receives federal E-rate funds from a non-Internet category—telecommunications—where CIPA does not apply.

Instead, the district relies on stringent student monitoring and a no- nonsense acceptable-use policy. Teachers at the elementary and middle school levels also don’t typically give students free reign on the Internet. Rather, they give them a list of sites they want them to use, Mr. Moore said.

Meanwhile, administrators in the 10,000-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro, N.C., schools plan to install filtering software to comply with CIPA, which they view with mixed emotions.

“Here comes yet another unfunded mandate; here comes Big Brother,” said Bob Stocking, the district’s director of instructional technology and media. “But at the same time, with the number of inappropriate sites and the underhanded ways companies put their sites in front of kids’ eyeballs ... we were starting to see that we needed to do something.”

He hopes to install a filter that gives teachers and administrators flexibility, and spend more time teaching responsible Internet use.

“There’s no substitute for teaching kids smart use of the Internet,” Mr. Stocking said.

Not only is he concerned about software costs, he wonders about the time and money needed to train teachers.

Filtering price tags can run up to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the software and number of computers. The average filtering cost is about several dollars per computer per year, according to industry officials.

“The more we spend on the filter, the less we can spend elsewhere, such as curriculum,” Mr. Stocking said. “So you have to make really difficult choices.”

Many Internet filters are on the market, but critics question their effectiveness .

A recent study by the National Coalition Against Censorship examined popular filtering software such as N2H2’s Bess, CYBERsitter, and SurfWatch. While those filters blocked many pornographic and other inappropriate sites, they also blocked sites on the Declaration of Independence and Shakespeare’s plays, the site for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and almost all gay and lesbian sites.

Such overblocking, the report said, “stems from the very nature of filtering.” While millions of Web sites exist, only a comparatively tiny number of technology- company employees review those sites—N2H2, for example, has 14 reviewers. So filters rely primarily on mechanical keyword searches.

The study also criticized human reviewers for blocking sites based on their companies’ “broad and varying concepts” of offensiveness and inappropriateness, as well as political views.

But technology-company officials take issue with these criticisms.

“We built our products on the needs of schools,” said David Burt, the public relations director for N2H2. “And we don’t have a particular political agenda. We’ve worked hard to avoid that. We don’t have categories on social or political issues. We do have a hate category. We block gay sites if they’re sexually explicit, but we don’t apply political criteria.”

In any case, school districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro are on the right track in relying on students and teachers—not filters—to ensure safe Internet use, said Nancy Willard, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology.

“Schools need to help young people learn ... what to do at that inevitable time when they inadvertently access garbage,” she said. “We need to empower kids.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Internet Filtering Is Balancing Act For Many Schools

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