New law requires schools to block Internet access to ‘harmful’ content

The World Wide Web has gained a great deal of popularity because of itseasy accessibility to a wide range of topics and information: music, clothes,news, jobs and health. Any kind of information you want, you can get withjust a click of a mouse.

Which is the problem.

It is precisely this ease of navigation that has sparked fear amongthe public that children can all too easily access sexually explicit orexcessively violent Web sites.

It is also the reason Congress passed a bill in December to requirelibraries and schools receiving federal technology funds to install Internetfiltering software on their computers.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act, also known as CHIPA, was signedinto 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 sexuallyexplicit 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 thatworks to protect individuals’ rights in the digital world, held two separateprotests objecting to the CHIPA legislation in California and New Yorkon April 20, the same day the law was set to go into effect.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in March on behalfof public libraries, library associations, library patrons and Web sitecreators around the country challenging the law. EFF joined the ACLU’slawsuit.

ACLU attorney Ann Beeson said the law is unconstitutional and clearlyviolates the free-speech rights of library patrons.

“CHIPA violates the First Amendment rights of both adults and minorsto access protected speech in libraries across the country,” Beeson said.

CHIPA requires all schools and libraries that receive federal fundsfor computer and Internet technology to install “technology protectionmeasures” on their computers to block material that is obscene, pornographicor harmful to minors.

“Harmful to minors” is defined under Title 18 of the U.S. Code as “anypicture, 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 mandatingInternet filtering software on school computers.ACLU attorney Christopher Hansen said this is because school rulesregarding Internet use are different than those of libraries.

“If I were a high school student and I was sitting in a history classusing a computer, it is perfectly acceptable for the teacher to say I can’tgo to a math Web site,” he said. “It has nothing to do with sex, it hasnothing 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 CHIPAin the future because the software will ultimately have the same effecton schools as it does on libraries.

CHIPA requires all elementary and secondary schools and libraries receivingcertain federal funds to enforce the use of blocking software by both adultsand minors when using the Internet or risk losing their technology funding,which includes the e-rate, a special discounted Internet access rate aimedat widening the availability of the Internet, and any funds they receivethrough the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or Library Service andTechnology Act.

Although the law officially went into effect on April 20, schools arenot required to comply with it until July 1. All implementation of thefiltering software must be completed by July 1, 2002, in order to receivefederal technology funding, according to Federal Communications Commissionguidelines.

According to the Education and Library Networks Coalition, which seeksto expand the use of educational technology in school and libraries, morethan 15,000 school districts and an additional 6,000 schools will be affectedby CHIPA because they participate in the e-rate program. However, thoseschools only receiving e-rate funds for telecommunications, which includesbasic phone lines, are exempt.

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking,an association that opposes mandatory filtering at the federal level, saidmore than 60 percent of schools throughout the country already use someform of filtering software, and 90 percent have acceptable-use policiesfor the Internet.

But simply using filtering technology is not enough. To comply withthe law, schools and libraries must install filtering software on all computers-eventhose that children do not have access to-and develop detailed Internet-usepolicies.This may cause confusion at many schools and school districts, saidLiza Kessler, senior policy counsel for Leslie Harris & Associates,an organization that helps for-profit and nonprofit groups understand Internetand digital technology policy issues.

“[Schools] think that what they are already doing will comply with thelaw,” Kessler said. “That isn’t true. A lot of communities use restrictivefiltering in elementary schools. And some high schools have [filteringsoftware] 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-rateare prohibited from disabling the filters for use by a minor. However,those schools that only receive funding through the Elementary and SecondaryEducation Act are allowed to disable the filters if they can show it isfor 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 schoolsallowing certain computers to remain filter free.School administrators at Lakewood agreed not to add filtering softwareto computers used by the journalism classes because journalism studentsneed to conduct unlimited research, according to student publication adviserJohn Bowen.

Bowen said adding filters to school computers is not the solution toprotecting children. He said training both teachers and students on howto properly handle the Internet and inappropriate information they couldpossibly stumble across while online would be more effective.

Bowen added that if a student abuses the use of school computers, administratorsshould be allowed to punish that particular student.

“[Students] will blunder into a front page,” Bowen said. “If they gofurther, 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 bemore 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, librariesare also required to be in accordance with the law by July 1 to save theire-rate funding and by July 31 to save LSTA funds.

Hansen said withholding federal funds to libraries refusing to use thefiltering programs is unfair.

“Suppose [the government] said they wouldn’t give you federal moneyunless you carry only books by Republicans, or white people or the Naziparty?” he asked. “The government should not be in the position of tellinglocal libraries what kinds of books can be put on their shelves. We thinkthe same is true here.”

Beeson said enforcement of CHIPA will not only block constitutionallyprotected speech, but will also widen the “digital divide,” the gap thatexists between those who have access to the Internet and those who do not.A recent report by the National Telecommunication and Information Administrationshowed that the gap is growing wider, and whites are more likely to haveInternet access from their homes than blacks or Latinos have from any location.

Critics of blocking software also contend that one of its biggest problemsis its failure to block out all obscene sites, while unintentionally blockingaccess to valuable sites. (SeeFilter 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 softwareprograms such as X-Stop, CyberPatrol, SmartFilter, I-Gear and WebSense,have been found to block protected speech. Among the sites that have beenblocked are, which provides information and advice abouthealth care,, a site that contains educational informationabout safer sex, and Planned Parenthood, which provides information aboutreproductive 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 ArcadiaUniversity after prospective students complained that they could not accessthe school’s Web site: The site was blocked by Web filtersintending to block out sexually explicit material.

Jeffrey Pollack, who ran for Congress last year, joined the ACLU lawsuitafter CyberPatrol inadvertently blocked his Web site: Pollock’s site did not contain any obscene or sexually explicitmaterial, the filtering software blocked the site’s host because it alsohosted pornographic sites, which caused Pollock’s site to be put on a listto be blocked.

Nobody knows why some sites are blocked and others are not because thefiltering software companies do not provide that information, accordingto Hansen.

“[Software companies] won’t tell you,” Hansen said. “Whether they thinkthey blocked [a site] correctly or whether they would admit they blockedit wrongly, I don’t know. All we know is that [the sites] are blocked.”