New law requires schools to block Internet access to 'harmful' content
Critics say act mandating use of filtering software is confusing, unconstitutional
Which is the problem.
It is precisely this ease of navigation that has sparked fear among the public that children can all too easily access sexually explicit or excessively violent Web sites.
It is also the reason Congress passed a bill in December to require libraries and schools receiving federal technology funds to install Internet filtering software on their computers.
The Children's Internet Protection Act, also known as CHIPA, was signed into law by former President Clinton as part of a massive spending package.
Supporters of the law say it is too easy for children to access sexually explicit material on the Internet and something must be done to stop it. Their solution to that problem is Internet filtering software.
But critics of CHIPA disagree and have openly criticized the law.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization that works to protect individuals' rights in the digital world, held two separate protests objecting to the CHIPA legislation in California and New York on April 20, the same day the law was set to go into effect.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in March on behalf of public libraries, library associations, library patrons and Web site creators around the country challenging the law. EFF joined the ACLU's lawsuit.
ACLU attorney Ann Beeson said the law is unconstitutional and clearly violates the free-speech rights of library patrons.
"CHIPA violates the First Amendment rights of both adults and minors to access protected speech in libraries across the country," Beeson said.
CHIPA requires all schools and libraries that receive federal funds for computer and Internet technology to install "technology protection measures" on their computers to block material that is obscene, pornographic or harmful to minors.
"Harmful to minors" is defined under Title 18 of the U.S. Code as "any picture, image, graphic image file or other visual depiction" that includes, among other things, sex and nudity and "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
The ACLU has decided not to challenge the part of the law mandating Internet filtering software on school computers. ACLU attorney Christopher Hansen said this is because school rules regarding Internet use are different than those of libraries.
"If I were a high school student and I was sitting in a history class using a computer, it is perfectly acceptable for the teacher to say I can't go to a math Web site," he said. "It has nothing to do with sex, it has nothing to do with violence, it has nothing to do with protecting children. It has to do with what's appropriate in the classroom."
Hansen added, however, that the ACLU may challenge that section of CHIPA in the future because the software will ultimately have the same effect on schools as it does on libraries.
CHIPA requires all elementary and secondary schools and libraries receiving certain federal funds to enforce the use of blocking software by both adults and minors when using the Internet or risk losing their technology funding, which includes the e-rate, a special discounted Internet access rate aimed at widening the availability of the Internet, and any funds they receive through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or Library Service and Technology Act.
Although the law officially went into effect on April 20, schools are not required to comply with it until July 1. All implementation of the filtering software must be completed by July 1, 2002, in order to receive federal technology funding, according to Federal Communications Commission guidelines.
According to the Education and Library Networks Coalition, which seeks to expand the use of educational technology in school and libraries, more than 15,000 school districts and an additional 6,000 schools will be affected by CHIPA because they participate in the e-rate program. However, those schools only receiving e-rate funds for telecommunications, which includes basic phone lines, are exempt.
Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, an association that opposes mandatory filtering at the federal level, said more than 60 percent of schools throughout the country already use some form of filtering software, and 90 percent have acceptable-use policies for the Internet.
But simply using filtering technology is not enough. To comply with the law, schools and libraries must install filtering software on all computers-even those that children do not have access to-and develop detailed Internet-use policies. This may cause confusion at many schools and school districts, said Liza Kessler, senior policy counsel for Leslie Harris & Associates, an organization that helps for-profit and nonprofit groups understand Internet and digital technology policy issues.
"[Schools] think that what they are already doing will comply with the law," Kessler said. "That isn't true. A lot of communities use restrictive filtering in elementary schools. And some high schools have [filtering software] on some computers, but not others. Those kinds of locally developed, more flexible solutions don't comply with the law."
Under CHIPA, all schools receiving technology funds through the e-rate are prohibited from disabling the filters for use by a minor. However, those schools that only receive funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are allowed to disable the filters if they can show it is for bona fide research. It is unclear at this time what counts as research, however.
Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Ohio, is one of a number of schools allowing certain computers to remain filter free. School administrators at Lakewood agreed not to add filtering software to computers used by the journalism classes because journalism students need to conduct unlimited research, according to student publication adviser John Bowen.
Bowen said adding filters to school computers is not the solution to protecting children. He said training both teachers and students on how to properly handle the Internet and inappropriate information they could possibly stumble across while online would be more effective.
Bowen added that if a student abuses the use of school computers, administrators should be allowed to punish that particular student.
"[Students] will blunder into a front page," Bowen said. "If they go further, the school should have the right to punish the individual student. But we're not going to have filters to punish everyone."
Krueger agreed that knowing how to handle certain situations would be more helpful to children.
"That's part of educating kids to be 21st century citizens," he said.
Because the ACLU did not ask for a preliminary injunction, libraries are also required to be in accordance with the law by July 1 to save their e-rate funding and by July 31 to save LSTA funds.
Hansen said withholding federal funds to libraries refusing to use the filtering programs is unfair.
"Suppose [the government] said they wouldn't give you federal money unless you carry only books by Republicans, or white people or the Nazi party?" he asked. "The government should not be in the position of telling local libraries what kinds of books can be put on their shelves. We think the same is true here."
Beeson said enforcement of CHIPA will not only block constitutionally protected speech, but will also widen the "digital divide," the gap that exists between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not. A recent report by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration showed that the gap is growing wider, and whites are more likely to have Internet access from their homes than blacks or Latinos have from any location.
Critics of blocking software also contend that one of its biggest problems is its failure to block out all obscene sites, while unintentionally blocking access to valuable sites. (See Filter face-off)
"Putting [filtering software] in libraries is not going to protect people, and it's going to prevent people from getting access to valuable sites," Hansen said.
According to the complaint filed by the ACLU, some filtering software programs such as X-Stop, CyberPatrol, SmartFilter, I-Gear and WebSense, have been found to block protected speech. Among the sites that have been blocked are AfraidToAsk.com, which provides information and advice about health care, SaferSex.org, a site that contains educational information about safer sex, and Planned Parenthood, which provides information about reproductive health care.
But not all of the blocked sites are health- or sex-related.
In Pennsylvania, Beaver College was forced to change its name to Arcadia University after prospective students complained that they could not access the school's Web site: www.beaver.edu. The site was blocked by Web filters intending to block out sexually explicit material.
Jeffrey Pollack, who ran for Congress last year, joined the ACLU lawsuit after CyberPatrol inadvertently blocked his Web site: pollock4congress.com. Although Pollock's site did not contain any obscene or sexually explicit material, the filtering software blocked the site's host because it also hosted pornographic sites, which caused Pollock's site to be put on a list to be blocked.
Nobody knows why some sites are blocked and others are not because the filtering software companies do not provide that information, according to Hansen.
"[Software companies] won't tell you," Hansen said. "Whether they think they blocked [a site] correctly or whether they would admit they blocked it wrongly, I don't know. All we know is that [the sites] are blocked."
reports, Spring 2001