What Are We Protecting Them From: By Mandating Schools Restrict Internet Access, CIPA and Other Federal and State Legislation Intend to Guard Student's Safety Online-But All They May Be Doing Is Keeping Vital Educational Technology out of the Classroom

By Villano, Matt | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), May 2008 | Go to article overview

What Are We Protecting Them From: By Mandating Schools Restrict Internet Access, CIPA and Other Federal and State Legislation Intend to Guard Student's Safety Online-But All They May Be Doing Is Keeping Vital Educational Technology out of the Classroom


Villano, Matt, T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


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On June 23, 2003, in writing the Supreme Court's majority opinion that upheld the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist shot down concerns that the law's mandated internet filters would block users of public library computers from visiting unobjectionable websites. "Any such concerns are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled," Rehnquist wrote. "When a patron encounters a blocked site, he need only ask a librarian to unblock it."

The ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled.

Oh really?

In a debate that has so much to do with the fine lines of meaning and interpretation, this assumption, according to online safety expert Nancy Willard, is what's all wrong with CIPA, which requires any school or library receiving funding from the federal E-Rate program to deploy web filtering technology that prevents users from viewing objectionable material while they are using the institution's computers. Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, OR, argues that web filters actually can threaten, not protect, students' security.

"Say there's a report of material that is posted on MySpace that relates to student safety or well-being, and that information is reported to a counselor," she explains, "the counselor needs to immediately get past the filter to review the material. Otherwise you have the potential for violence or suicide. In many schools, the ability to rapidly override the filter has not been established, which is impairing instructional activities as well as jeopardizing student safety."

It's only one of many points of contention Willard and other educators have raised in opposition to CIPA since its enactment in 2000, as well as the various similar pieces of federal and state legislation that have since been introduced in the effort to protect children from online predators and offensive web content while in public schools and libraries. No one disputes the need to protect kids from the harm that lurks online. What's at issue is whether or not mandated internet filters are the best way to achieve those safeguards--or whether the filters aren't up to the task and are actually interfering with the educational mission by obstructing use of important Web 2.0 tools.

The benefits of the legislation are apparent. On the most basic level, some degree of mandatory filtering is certainly better than no filtering, which leaves school networks completely open for students to visit whatever websites they wish. With the new filters, access to pornographic websites, gambling sites, and other popular distractions is almost entirely locked down.

"Under the old system, where districts were left to handle these things on their own, many schools were opening the door to just about everything," says Jayne Moore, director of instructional technology and school library media for the Maryland Department of Education. "At least with a filter, districts have a good sense of control over what their kids are doing on the internet when they're at school."

Still, CIPA's implementation has faced many issues, the first being its irrelevance. By the time the bill was passed into law, many school districts had already purchased content filters with scanning technology that far exceeded the requirements set forth by the federal government.

A second issue is sheer overzealousness. In many cases, schools have cranked up their filters so high that students searching for an innocuous but easily misunderstood term can't get anywhere. David Burt, who runs the blog Filtering Facts, which is dedicated to providing the newest information and research about internet filtering, tells the familiar story about students who were searching for information about breast cancer, but were impeded because their search contained the word breast. …

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