« Hoax on You | Main | What I Learned at Wonewok »

Maintaining Intellectual Freedom in a Filtered World

Maintaining Intellectual Freedom in a Filtered World
Media Matters Leading and Learning, May 2005

We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they need the help of censors to assist them in this task.”  American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights” <www.ala.org/ala/oif/statementspols/statementsif/librarybillrights.htm>

Young people have First Amendment rights. American Library Association

The concepts of intellectual freedom as expressed in the statements above are as relevant to information in electronic formats as they are in print.

As a proponent of intellectual freedom, I advocated and received administrative support for unfiltered Internet access in the Mankato Area Public Schools from 1994 through 2001. But because of the CIPA Act, our district installed an Internet filter. I was expecting a raft of problems.

I was concerned that students would rise in revolt after having Internet sites unreasonably blocked as they searched for information. I was worried that by installing a filter, teachers would abandon their role as guide and supervisor when students were on online. I feared the light of education would glow less brightly as a result of the filter’s installation with diminished staff and student access to a variety of information sources and opinions. I was certain I was violating my long-held personal beliefs that every individual, regardless of age, has the right to access and read a multiplicity of ideas and viewpoints, free of censorship in any form.

Now, I must admit that my pragmatic side had its doubts about the wisdom of our district’s not having a filtering device installed as well. Technology had indeed opened floodgates of information into our schools by way of the Internet, and those rising waters included flotsam and sewage. Materials and ideas that had been in the past physically inaccessible to students now could be viewed, both purposely and accidentally, right in our media centers and classrooms.

The potential of student access to unsavory and possibly unsafe materials on the Internet had made support of intellectual freedom extremely challenging. It is difficult to justify a resource that allows the accidental viewing of graphic sexual acts by second-graders searching for innocuous information, communication by anorexic teens with supportive fellow anorexics, or access by seventh graders to “Build Your Own Computer Virus” websites. Defending unfiltered Internet access was quite different from defending The Catcher in the Rye. But just because something is difficult, does not make it wrong.

Happily, the sky has not fallen since we installed our filter. The complaints about over-blocking and under-blocking from teachers and students have numbered less than a dozen since 2001. I was surprised in light of what I had been hearing from media specialists in other school districts who complained about the filters and filtering policies in their districts.

Why did we seem to have maintained some semblance of intellectual freedom in our schools?

Some background first.
Did we have to install an Internet filter in our district? If we wished to remain eligible for federal funds, including E-rate, the answer was clearly yes. The Childhood Internet Protection Act reads:

To be eligible to receive universal service assistance under subsection (h)(1)(B), an elementary or secondary school (or the school board or other authority with responsibility for administration of that school) shall certify to the Commission that it has—
(A) selected a technology for computers with Internet access to filter or block material deemed to be harmful to minors; and
(B) installed, or will install, and uses or will use, as soon as it obtains computers with Internet access, a technology to filter or block such material. <thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c106:S.97.IS:>
CIPA defines “technology protection measures” as a specific technology that blocks or filters Internet access to visual images that are “obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” Despite some controversy around the issue, our advisory committee’s conclusion was that Internet filtering software most clearly met both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Yet, we had major reservations about filtering devices. Using and relying solely on these imperfect products to limit students’ access to “sites deemed harmful” might:
  1. Under-block, leaving inappropriate sites accessible.
  2. Over-block, preventing access to appropriate sites.
  3. Block sites deemed not politically acceptable (including anti-filter sites) to the filtering authors.
  4. Leave access to inappropriate peer-to-peer networks, chat rooms, or images that cannot be blocked.
  5. Be easily disabled or worked-around by our clever and ambitious students.
  6. Give teachers, media specialists, administrators, parents, and legislators a false sense of security.

Studies, like those of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (2003) that examined nearly a million web pages, fueled our concern. The researchers found the following:
  • For every web page blocked as advertised, blocking software blocks one or more web pages inappropriately. 97-99% of the web pages blocked were done so using non-standard, discretionary, and potentially illegal criteria beyond what is required by CIPA.
  • Internet blocking software was not able to detect and protect students from access to many of the apparently pornographic sites that appeared in search results related to state-mandated curriculums.
And, as anyone who has worked with children knows, a certain percentage of young people will see any “block” as simply a challenge to find a way around. Students can circumvent filters by:
  • Disabling stand-alone software through simple keyboard combinations.
  • Using specialized software such as that available from Peacefire’s website.
  • Changing a browser’s proxy to an unfiltered site.
  • Using an anonymizer like Akamai.
  • Logging into the filtering server using a default administrator’s password if not disabled.
As clever as we adults might think we are, we are usually at least two steps behind many of the students in our schools.

So how did our district maintain intellectual freedom and a safe Internet environment when filters don’t necessarily work very well?
There are a number of proactive measures that we took to make sure students and staff could operate in the least restrictive Internet environment possible, keep students safe, and yet meet the requirements of CIPA.

1.    We based our choice of filters not on cost or convenience, but on features and customizability, and chose the least restrictive settings of the installed filter.
Internet filters have a wide range of restrictiveness. Depending on the product, the product’s settings, and the ability to override the filter to permit access to individual sites, filters can either block a high percentage of the Internet resources (specific websites, email, chat rooms, etc.) or a relatively small number of sites.

Another study of Internet filtering conducted by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (2002) revealed some other interesting numbers:
  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the least restrictive settings will block between .5% and 5% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.
  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the most restrictive settings will block up to 70% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.
Another study conducted by the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School (JAMA, 2002) examined how well seven Internet filters blocked health information for teens at settings from least restrictive to very restrictive.  They found that at the least restrictive setting only 1.4% of the health information sites were blocked and 87% of the pornography sites were blocked. At the most restrictive setting, 24% of the health information sites were blocked with still only 91% of the pornography sites blocked.

Given the tendency to over-block, we chose to filter (using WebBlocker) in only two of 14 categories – “sexual acts” and “gross sexual depictions.”

2.    We generously use the override lists in our Internet filter; and we make sure media specialists can override the filter or have access to a machine that is completely unblocked in each media center so that questionably blocked sites can be reviewed and immediately accessed by staff and students if found to be useful.
Our district media/technology committee decided that any teacher or media specialist may have a site unblocked by simply requesting it – no questions asked. The technology department was relieved of the responsibility, beyond correctly installing and configuring the filter, for students accessing possibly inappropriate materials, and that all school staff members were still required to continue to monitor students while on the Internet as if no filter were present. The technicians now know that it is the responsibility of the teaching staff to see that students do not access inappropriate materials, not theirs, and there is less tendency to “block everything - just in case.”

3. We treat requests for the blocking of specific websites like we would any other material challenge.
We require that when any staff member, parent or community member requests that a specific Internet site be blocked, that the request be treated like any other material challenge in the district. Our district, like most, has a “reconsideration” policy outlining procedures to follow when someone requests that any material be removed from our schools, whether it is a book from a media center or classroom, a textbook chapter from the curriculum, or a video from the collection. Our policy calls for the person making the request to complete a form specifying what is objectionable about the material. Once completed, a special committee is formed that carefully reviews the material and then makes a recommendation to the school board about the material – whether to retain it or remove it. The school board then decides the issue, based on the recommendations of the committee. Online resources are given the same rigorous review process before being blocked.

4. We take a proactive approach to ensuring good Internet use by students.
We encourage media specialists and classroom teacher to:
  • Articulate personal values when using technology. We encourage talking to students about ethical online conduct and setting clear limits about what is allowed and what is not allowed. We ask all staff members to be knowledgeable about the school’s Acceptable Use Policy and work to help students understand it.
  • Build student trust. If an inappropriate site is accidentally accessed, we encourage using the incident to teach some strategies about using clues in search result findings to discriminate between relevant and non-relevant sites.
  • Allow students personal use of the Internet. If the Internet computers are not being used for curricular purposes, students can research topics of personal interest (that are not dangerous or pornographic). The best reason for allowing this is that students are far less likely to risk loss of Internet privileges if that means losing access to things that they enjoy.
  • Reinforce ethical behaviors and react to the misuse of technology. Technology use behaviors are treated no differently than other behaviors - good or bad - and the consequences of such behaviors are equal. We try not to overreact to incidents of technological misuse. If a student were caught reading Playboy in paper form, it’s doubtful we’d suspend all his or her reading privileges.
  • Model ethical behaviors. All of us learn more from what others do than what they say. Verbalization of how we personally make decisions is a very powerful teaching tool, but it’s useless to lecture about safe and appropriate use when we, ourselves, may not follow our own rules.
  • Create environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored, keep passwords secure, and require logging into and out of network systems help remove the opportunities for technology misuse. An adult presence is a far more effective means of assuring good behavior than filtering software.
  • Assess children’s understanding of ethical concepts.  We do not give technology use privileges until a student has demonstrated that he or she knows and can apply school policies. We test appropriate use prior to students gaining online access.
  • Educate staff and parents about ethical technology use. Through school newsletters, talks at parent organization meetings, and through school orientation programs, our media specialists inform and enlist the aid of teachers and parents in teaching and enforcing good technology practices.
 Maintaining both the concept of intellectual freedom and providing a healthy and educational online environment may seem to be a difficult balancing act. But so far, our district seems to have been able to both meet the requirements of CIPA and give staff and students access to the greatest possible range of online resources. As an intellectual freedom advocate, I am monitoring the situation very closely!

Selected resources on the effectiveness of filters written in the past 3 years. (URLs verified October 2004.)

•    ALA’s Web Site on the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) <www.ala.org/ala/washoff/WOissues/civilliberties/cipaweb/cipa.htm>
•    Does Pornography-Blocking Software Block Access to Health Information on the Internet. JAMA, Dec 11, 2002. <www.med.umich.edu/fp/internet-filter-paper.pdf>
•    Filtering the Internet, Infopeople Project (filter comparisons) 2002 <www.infopeople.org/howto/filtering/>
•    Internet Blocking in Schools, Electronic Freedom Foundation, 2003. <www.eff.org/Censorship/Censorware/net_block_report/>
•    Report to Congress - Children’s Internet Protection Act - Pub. L. 106-554 - Study of Technology Protection Measures in Section 1703. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, US Dept of Commerce, August 2003. <www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipa2003/CIPAreport_08142003.htm>
•    Youth, Pornography and the Internet. National Research Council, 2002. <www.nap.edu/books/0309082749/html/>

Posted on Tuesday, July 17, 2007 at 01:42PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments1 Comment

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for pointing me to this post. I'll send it to my principal next time we have a discussion about internet safety issues. I think his inclination is to be here, but after some of the problems they've had even with filtering, he's a little skittish.

August 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterA. Mercer

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>