What Are We Protecting Them From?

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By mandating schools restrict internet access,CIPA and other federal and state legislation intendto guard students' safety online-but all they maybe doing is keeping vital educationaltechnology out of the classroom.

What Are We Protecting Them From?On June 23, 2003, in writing the Supreme Court'smajority opinion that upheld the constitutionality of theChildren's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the late ChiefJustice William Rehnquist shot down concerns that thelaw's mandated internet filters would block users ofpublic library computers from visiting unobjectionablewebsites. "Any such concerns are dispelledby the ease with which patrons mayhave the filtering software disabled," Rehnquistwrote. "When a patron encountersa blocked site, he need only ask alibrarian 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.

"Abstinence from technology is a losing battle. To notteach technology use responsibly is neglecting the charge of universaleducation."
-Don Knezek, International Society for Technology in Education

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.

"When they are turned up to the highest settings, many of these filters actually block good information, too," says Burt, who works as a product manager at Microsoft. "For teachers who rely on the internet to help with specific lessons, this can become very frustrating, to say the least."

Perhaps the biggest problem with CIPA-inspired filtering has become proxy servers. These servers, so-called "safe" sites that act as proxies and forward web page requests to other servers, enable students to dupe district filters into thinking they are visiting one site when they are in fact visiting something very different-and usually forbidden.

Willard says proxy servers are more of a problem than district administrators even know. She recounts a recent visit to a school district during which she met with a handful of students as a focus group to find out what kind of safety issues concerned them. During a break in the action, Willard asked them if they knew how to get around the district's internet filters.

Across the board, the students said yes.

"Schools across this country are spending millions and millions of dollars for technical solutions to comply with CIPA," Willard says, "but our students can easily get around just about everything we throw at them."

Choosing a Filter

BACK IN THE DAYS before the federal Children's Internet ProtectionAct came into being in 2000, choosing a K-12 web filter didn'tdemand the kind of careful consideration that is needed today.Between a vendor named Secure Computing, which owned nearly 40 percent of the market share, andWebsense, most schools could find a filteringproduct that suited them.

Today, however, as demand for K-12 internet filtering has increasedand the price for the technology has dropped, the market has beenflooded with smaller, more agile vendors that have developed solutionsspecifically for the primary education market.

Some of the most popular vendors include Check Point SoftwareTechnologies, 8e6 Technologies,and DeepNines Technologies, which all sellweb filtering solutions. Most products cost less than $15,000.

For districts thoroughly pressed for cash, another reliable solution isthe open source content filter DansGuardian.While commercial filters grade content against a banned list of sites,DansGuardian engages techniques such as phrase matching, PICSfiltering, and URL filtering.

The newest entrant to the filtering space is SafeSquid, headquartered in India. The company offers asoftware-based filter that addresses content review with the samestrategy as a standard proxy server. School districts sign up, and allof their web traffic is routed through the SafeSquid server beforemoving on to the internet.

Regulating Social Networks

Regardless of how flawed educational technology experts think CIPA is, for years the act represented the extent of federal regulations concerning child safety online, applying to both K-12 schools and public libraries. Then, about four or five years ago, social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace took off, and the presence of the internet in children's lives grew, forcing a reconsideration of CIPA and other regulatory measures.

Since their arrival, social networking sites have become an almost compulsive component of students' daily routine. A 2007 study from the National School Boards Association reported that social networking is the most frequent reason kids use the internet. In fact, nearly all-96 percent-of the 1,277 responding students with online access say they've used social networking technologies of some kind. Statistics from the NSBA and other organizations that track data on social networking indicate that nearly 75 percent of school-age children have MySpace pages. And many students access these websites multiple times a day- sometimes even over their iPhones from the school cafeteria, operating over WiFi or the local cellular network.

What's alarming about the NSBA study is this number: 52 percent of the 250 surveyed school district officials report that students are providing personal information online-a practice that can lead to harassment, cyberbullying, and in the worst cases, kidnapping or molestation.

With the online environment dramatically changed, federal legislators have taken a number of different strategies to guard against the new dangers.

A first strike was HR 5319, a bill brought before the US House of Representatives by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA) in May 2006. In theory, the bill, originally known as the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA, took aim at social networking in an attempt to protect minors from online predators. In a nutshell, the measures would have amended the Communications Act of 1934, introducing new language requiring schools and libraries that receive E-Rate funding to prohibit access to social networking sites to minors.

The trouble began with DOPA's classification of a social networking site, which includes this condition: enables communication among users. "The definition basically includes any place where someone could post material," Willard says. "It would have resulted in schools being forced to block access to 50 or 75 percent of the internet."

"Do these laws go a bit overboard? I'd say inmany cases, they do. But when we're talking about our children,overprotection is far more important than no protection at all."
-Tom Strasburger, PublicSchoolWorks

Another of the bill's five criteria for what constitutes a social networking site is: permits registered users to create an online journal and share such a journal with other users.

In other words, a blog.

Yet blogging has become for many teachers an indispensable instructional tool. Willard cites Class Blogmeister and Edublogs as examples of educational websites that the legislation would end up blocking. "How are the filtering companies going to decide which interactive sites are educational or not?" she says. "They're not. They're going to block all blogs." That, Willard says, would amount to a large step backward.

"It is essential that schools enhance the use of these technologies. They are the foundation for all that our young people will be doing in their lives. They are the way they will be engaged in career activities, personal life activities, and civic affairs."

School districts that would rather not leave the filtering decisions to the vendor can create their own blacklists and whitelists of websites, but that requires hours upon hours of labor, and most districts don't have that kind of time.

These and other educator criticisms sparked political opposition to DOPA, and the bill stalled in the House, where it remains in limbo today. On the state level, elected officials have taken their cues from the federal efforts and made similar attempts to control children's activity on social networking sites.

  • Oklahoma's HB 1715, which became law last November, requires public libraries to deny children ages 12 and younger use of the internet in its entirety in the absence of adult supervision or filtering technology that bars access to e-mail and social networking sites.
  • Being debated in the Illinois General Assembly is the Social Networking Website Prohibition Act, which would mandate that all public libraries and schools bar access to any social networking site for users of all ages.

Willard calls these laws "knee-jerk reactions." Still, with the rise in cyberbullying incidents such as the 2006 case in Florida in which online verbal taunts led to a 13-year-old girl's suicide, some observers argue that some sort of blanket legislation intended to safeguard students is at least a start.

Tom Strasburger, who serves as vice president of sales and marketing at PublicSchoolWorks, a software company based in Cincinnati, says that because most of the laws and regulations that pertain to child safety must be comprehensive and forward-thinking, they tend to err on the side of being too broad, but that's excusable in the name of security. "Do these laws go a bit overboard?" he says. "I'd say in many cases, they do. But when we're talking about our children, overprotection is far more important than no protection at all."

An Ounce of Prevention

Opponents of web filtering legisation argue it is simply the wrong way to approach online safety. "We can filter content all we want," says Jim Culbert, information security analyst at Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, FL, "but at the end of the day, keeping students safe involves much, much more."

If filters are well-intentioned but inadequate, how do we address the real need to protect students from online harassment?

According to Willard, common-sense methods can do more than legislation. "We should tell kids that if something that looks ‘yucky' comes up on the screen, turn off the monitor and tell an adult," she says. "That essential safety technique is not being taught because of the misplaced reliance on filters."

Many K-12 technology experts say the best solution longterm is shifting the emphasis from policing the way students use the internet to educating them about using it more safely. In Virginia, for instance, a law passed last year prescribes an internet safety curriculum in every public school. Now every Virginia schoolchild must be taught about the dangers of interacting on the web, starting in kindergarten.

In 2007, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-IN) took this thinking to the national stage, proposing HR 3871, the E-Keep the Internet Decent and Safe (e-KIDS) Act, which would mandate that schools educate minors about appropriate online behavior. Other laws under consideration in Congress right now would provide up to $5 million a year to fund i-Safe, a nonprofit foundation in Carlsbad, CA, whose mission is to educate and empower youth to make their internet experiences safe and responsible.

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education in Washington, DC, says his group is putting together professional development courses to help teachers develop techniques for educating their students about responsible internet use. As part of the program, teachers will be encouraged to spend time in online communities to get a sense of how social networking sites work, and what kind of "buddies" students are liable to meet there. "Abstinence from technology is a losing battle," Knezek says. "To not teach technology use responsibly is neglecting the charge of universal education."

Over time, these kinds of efforts could yield huge dividends- they have worked elsewhere. Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians in Chicago, recently traveled to Finland, where educators have taught students about responsible internet use for years. Walker says most Finnish schools don't even have filters-at least not the kind any technologist would need to worry about.

"Over there, thanks to solid teaching, the filters are in the students' heads," she says. "Students come into school with a sense of responsibility for their learning and a sense of why they're there. Ultimately, that's where we need to be too."

::WEBEXTRAS ::
For more information on internet safety, visit here. In the Browse by Topicmenu, click on Security/Privacy.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Healdsburg, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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