Schools question effectiveness, fairness of federal Internet act

Students, parents, educators and free speech advocates spoke out Sept. 18 against a federal mandate that went into effect this fall, arguing it limits students’ ability to utilize the Internet and violates students’ civil liberties.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which was signed into law by President Clinton in December of 2000, requires that public secondary and elementary schools implement Internet filtering software to be eligible for certain federal funding and discounts. Schools were given until July to comply with the mandate, and many students and educators began to experience its effects this fall.

At press conferences in New York, Boston and San Francisco, speakers urged that the act be repealed, saying that the software too frequently “overblocks” or “underblocks” Web pages, and that the law is discriminatory in nature.

Student journalists and journalism educators have been concerned about Internet filters’ effect on their ability to research pertinent stories.

“The software programs schools are using simply don’t work,” said Stephanie Elizondo Griest, coordinator of Youth Free Expression Network (YFEN), who organized the press conference held in New York. According to Griest, the software too often blocks information that should be available, while leaving loopholes for students to view material that could be considered inappropriate.

“A student who wants to find information on humpback whales can’t find it because of the word ‘hump,'” said Griest. “Students researching terrorism and gay and lesbian rights are limited, too, which is discriminatory.”

Brad Velcoff, who teaches English and desktop publishing at West Manhattan Outreach in New York, said CIPA closes doors to research for his students.

“It really limits using the Internet as an instructional tool,” said Velcoff, whose students are ages 17 to 21 and often move on to communications-related fields upon graduation. Velcoff said he believes it is important that students learn to use books “in addition to and not instead of” the Internet in their research.

Preliminary results of research done by the Online Policy Group (OPG) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) supports Griest and Velcoff’s case. In examining nearly a million Web pages using N2H2’s Bess and Surfcontrol, two of the most commonly used Internet blocking software products, the research showed that even when using the least restrictive settings, tens of thousands of Web pages will be inappropriately blocked. This is either because the Web pages are incorrectly categorized by the software or simply do not merit blocking, according to OPG and EFF findings. A final research report will be available at in mid-October.

Opponents also said filtering initiatives increase the “digital divide” between students who have Internet access at home or at well-equipped libraries and those without such resources.

“More affluent students will have the privilege of ditching newly censored school computers for their less restricted ones at home, while the less fortunate will likely be stuck in a frustrating and quite discriminatory situation,” said Jess Pinkham, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York, as quoted in an American Civil Liberties Union press release.

Griest said that YFEN and other groups who oppose CIPA suggest a move toward “media literacy” as an alternative to filtering. The Internet would be equally available to students on all levels and without respect to socioeconomic background, while eliminating the pitfalls CIPA creates. “Teachers can monitor their students while instructing them on how to use the Internet correctly and safely,” said Griest.

In May, a federal district court struck down a provision of CIPA requiring public libraries to implement filtering software after it found that the software violated First Amendment rights of library patrons in blocking too much Web content. The government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet indicated whether it will review the ruling. No one has yet contested the law’s provisions pertaining to public secondary and elementary schools.

Read opponent letter to Congress.Read previous coverage Spring 2001 Report