IT Infrastructure & Management Opinion

Filtering the Internet

By Nancy E. Willard — March 27, 2002 9 min read
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Many school districts are at work developing policies that comply with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. This legislation requires districts that use E-rate funds to put in place a “technology protection measure” guarding against students’ access to obscene materials, child pornography, and other online content harmful to minors. CIPA also requires that districts monitor student use of the Internet and develop an Internet-safety plan that addresses such issues as access to inappropriate material, the safety and security of students when using electronic communications, unauthorized access and other unlawful online activities, and unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information about students.

We cannot resolve the very real concerns that exist about student misuse of the Internet by relying on technological "quick fixes."

This is all to the good. Districts should develop a comprehensive and effective strategy to address such concerns, and CIPA’s requirements provide a framework for doing so. Unfortunately, however, many districts are placing their primary reliance on filtering software that functions by blocking access to material considered inappropriate by a private company. Too great a dependence on these technologies raises significant concerns for educators, not the least of which is that, like any technology tool, the blocking software’s effectiveness will depend on the overall strategy it is a part of.

Some of the areas of concern we should be discussing as we work to comply with the new federal requirements include the following:

  • Districts that rely primarily on blocking technologies may be placing students in a position of greater vulnerability and risk at those inevitable times when they will have access to the Internet through a system without such blocking, or when the blocking function fails.

These technologies are neither infallible nor ever-present. As educators, our focus should be on helping young people learn to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner, in accord with school standards and their own personal family values.

This is especially important with elementary students, who must be kept in “safe Internet places” and closely supervised during any occasional access to the open Internet. Students in this age group don’t have the knowledge or skills to independently use the open Internet in a safe manner. There are a variety of technologies and techniques that schools can use to protect elementary-age students.

Secondary school students, however, should know how to avoid getting to the wrong sites and what to do when they have gotten to a wrong site, especially if they have been, in the jargon of the field, “mouse-napped” and cannot easily get out. High school students should understand and practice safe online communication skills. They need to have a clear understanding of expected behavior when using the Internet in school, and be held accountable for such use. There are technologies that can promote responsible use, foster self-control, and ensure accountability.

  • Districts that place primary reliance on blocking software frequently fail to address the more important activities that are necessary to ensure that the Internet is being used for high-quality educational purposes.

A 1999 study of Internet use in a filtered environment (conducted by the Internet-access-management company N2H2) revealed that less than 16 percent of student Internet use was on sites identified as “instruction” and “reference.” The vast majority of other use, on sites with content such as music, games, fun sports, commerce, e-services, and chat rooms, did not, in all probability, serve an educational purpose. Far too many students were engaged in what might be called “Internet recess.”

Unfortunately, many school administrators think they have resolved concerns about Internet use with the acquisition of filtering software. But if districts are going to invest in technology, they also need to invest in professional development, technical and instructional support, the development of Internet-based lesson plans that will help students achieve district learning objectives, and construction of a district Web site with links to previewed, high-quality educational sites.

Many districts are placing their primary reliance on filtering software that functions by blocking access to material considered inappropriate by a private company.

  • Blocking technologies are far from perfect; many appropriate sites are blocked, which results in significant frustration and interference with effective instruction and learning.

Although no one knows for sure whether such overblocking results from technical inadequacies, poor decisionmaking processes, or the potential of bias, districts using a blocking system would be well-advised to have a process in place that can rapidly ensure access to inappropriately blocked sites by overriding the system.

  • Local school officials are delegating decisionmaking control to third-party companies for determining the appropriateness of material for students; yet, there is no system in place to ensure these companies’ accountability.

Most companies provide only a list of potential categories to be blocked and a short description of the types of material blocked. They usually protect the actual list of blocked sites, key words used in searching and blocking, blocking criteria, and blocking processes, saying these constitute confidential, proprietary, trade-secret information. There is no mechanism to conduct an independent, objective analysis of these companies to ensure that blocking decisions are made in accord with constitutional standards that protect students’ rights of access to information.

  • Companies may be making blocking decisions in a manner that places school districts in a position of inappropriately restricting student access to information, based on viewpoint discrimination or bias.

A report recently published by the project I direct at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education, Responsible Netizen, contains information on eight filtering-software companies with significant ties to conservative religious organizations. Three of the companies, all with a major presence in schools, are selling their filtering products to conservative religious Internet service providers, who are telling their customers that the filtering is in accord with “biblical standards,” “Christian principles,” or the religious “values” of their users.

Three companies that also function as conservative Christian Internet service providers have recently set up new divisions selling to schools. Seven of the companies have blocking categories that raise concerns about the potential for blocking decisions based on inappropriate religious bias.

Clearly, the existence of these relationships and blocking categories calls for greater scrutiny of the technologies and the companies offering them. This is particularly true for public institutions.

What, then, should be the core components of a district’s comprehensive strategy to help young people gain the knowledge, skills, and self-control to independently use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner? For elementary students, the primary focus should be on maintaining a safe and secure environment. As students become older, the focus should shift to strategies that will help students learn to independently make safe and responsible choices and will ensure accountability. Here are some key elements:

  • Focus on the educational purpose. Use of the district Internet system should be limited to those activities that support education, enrichment, and career development, with the option of limited “open access” times. Districts must support the educational use of the system through professional development, technical and instructional support, Internet-based lesson plans, and an educational Web site.
  • Education about Internet use. Teachers, administrators, and students should receive instruction related to the safe and responsible use of the Internet.
  • Supervision and monitoring. Student use of the Internet should be supervised by teachers in a manner that is appropriate for the age of the students and circumstances of use. Monitoring should be sufficient to detect most instances of misuse. Students should be aware that they have a very limited expectation of privacy when they use the Internet at school. Districts can address parent concerns and support Internet use in accord with personal family values by allowing parents to have access to their children’s Internet-use records upon request.
  • Discipline. Misuse of the Internet by students should be addressed in a manner that makes use of the “teachable moment.”

Some additional requirements for compliance with CIPA’s Internet safety plan include the following:

As educators, our focus should be on helping young people learn to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner, in accord with school standards and their own personal family values.

  • Inappropriate material. Districts should clearly define what kinds of material are considered to be inappropriate in school. We recommend the identification of three categories of material: (1) Prohibited material should not be accessed by students or staff members at any time, for any purpose. (2) Restricted material may be accessed by high school students only in the context of specific learning activities that have been approved by teachers or staff members for legitimate research or professional-development purposes. (3) Limited-access material, generally considered to be noneducational or entertainment, may be accessed in the context of specific learning activities or during “open access” times.

Technology-protection measures that can meet the CIPA requirements and support a comprehensive strategy, without losing control to private companies, include: blocking based on first-party rating, using the Internet Content Rating Association system; blocking using a product that provides complete access to the list of blocked sites; and use of a filtered monitoring system that will filter traffic and report instances of potential misuse.

  • Safety and security of students when using electronic communication. Districts can address this by limiting the use of electronic communications to educational purposes and by providing instruction in privacy and communication-safety standards.

  • Unauthorized access and other unlawful online activities. Districts should address issues of illegal and unethical Internet use, including computer security, copyright infringement, plagiarism, and harmful speech, through policy provisions and instruction.

  • Unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding students. Districts should have policies on staff and student personal information that address: the protection of student privacy under any relationships with third parties on the Internet, staff disclosure of student confidential information, and student disclosure of personal information of others or themselves.

We cannot resolve the very real concerns that exist about student misuse of the Internet by relying on technological “quick fixes.” The Children’s Internet Protection Act presents schools with an opportunity to develop and implement sound strategies that will help young people create and maintain the most effective filtering and blocking systems available—the ones that reside in the hardware sitting on their shoulders.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Filtering the Internet


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