Internet Filtering: Are We Making Any Progress?

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School Library Connection is pleased to collaborate with ALA President Julie Todaro and her school library group Task Force to provide access to a selection of key professional development articles aligned with essential professional competencies for school librarians. We’ll be posting at least one article a day between now and April 15. These articles were hand selected from our archives by an expert panel of librarians chaired by Susan Ballard, Dorcas Hand, and Sara Kelly Johns.

Competency 2: Ethical Principles and Professional Norms

“Internet Filtering: Are We Making Any Progress?” by Helen R. Adams. School Library Connection, April 2016.

Congress approved the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000 with the best possible motives—protecting children and young adults using the “wild west” Web. Unfortunately, the legislation is misinterpreted by many school districts and has created the unintended consequence of choking off access to valuable educational resources for students and teachers.

What’s the Current Filtering Situation in Schools?

Fifteen years after CIPA’s implementation, the filters in many districts continue to be overly restrictive and block far beyond the requirements of shielding against visual images that are obscene, contain child pornography, or material harmful to minors as defined by federal law (FCC). The law does not require that districts filter text, audio, social media, or interactive web tools, although filtering software routinely bars access to these resources. To compound the problem, many schools make unblocking of mislabeled, but legitimate, websites a lengthy process.

In conversations with school librarians this year, their stories have not changed. Patty, a high school librarian in Wyoming, described the process for unblocking a website in her district this way:

When students encounter a site that is blocked, they have an option to request that the page be unblocked. Since our students do not have separate logins when using school equipment, there is no way for the IT Department to know who initiated the request, so individual students are not notified of the status of their request.

When a teacher requests that a site be unblocked, he emails our District Network Engineer, who reviews the request and then responds to the individual teacher. Regardless of whether an unblocking request comes from a student or a teacher, the response can take minutes, hours, or days. Our District Technology Department’s workload means they cannot address the requests within a timeframe that meets the real-time needs of teachers and students.

(Patty, email message to author, November 16, 2015).

Patty, her students, and colleagues are not alone. Librarians across the country, including Rae Ann, an elementary librarian in Pennsylvania, continue to find the process for unblocking a website to be long and a hindrance to instructional preparation.

Our web filtering can be described as pretty restrictive; however, we are able to request a website be unblocked. We have to submit an online work order to the technology department. Once the request is received, the techs will ask the teacher to defend the decision to unblock a site. Then, the Director of Technology needs to approve the decision. By this time, too much time has passed. Most elementary teachers (me included) will find an alternative website rather than endure a delay in finding information for a lesson.

(Rae Ann, email to author, July 19, 2015).

Kristen, a high school librarian in Pennsylvania, brought up another way in which filters impact her teaching.

Students who have their own devices at school and connect to the school’s wifi are subject to the filter. When I’m using a new app with classes, I always have to check with technology [staff] to make sure it isn’t blocked. But by the time we take this extra step, it’s too late—we’ve already moved on from that lesson.

(Kristen, email message to author, November 11, 2015).

Rae Ann was very forthright in her assessment of the cost of strict filtering.

By having restrictive filters at school, we aren’t teaching our students what to do in the real world. They will face situations where inappropriate websites and images appear on their phones, iPads, and other devices. Outside of school or a public library, our students may never encounter a filter while using the Internet. How will they know what to do?

(Rae Ann, email to author, August 4, 2015).

One Positive Addition to CIPA

After CIPA was implemented in 2001, there was much discussion about teaching students about Internet safety rather than relying on filters. In 2008, the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act added a provision to CIPA requiring schools receiving E-rate discounts for Internet access to include an instructional component in their Internet safety policies. Specifically, the policy must provide for educating minors “about appropriate online behavior” and “cyberbullying awareness and response” (FCC).

Districts take this obligation seriously. Karen, a high school librarian in North Carolina, explained that in her district online safety and cyberbullying lessons are taught annually to elementary students in each grade over a period of several weeks. Middle and high school students are instructed in sixth and ninth grades using videos from iSafe [www.isafe.org] and engage in discussion of the content. To provide documentation, teachers are required to “verify online [to district administration] that students have received the information” (Karen, email to author, November 20, 2015).

What Have ALA & AASL Done?

The American Library Association (ALA) and AASL have undertaken extensive efforts to combat excessive filtering in schools and libraries; and over the lengthy period since CIPA’s enactment, these actions are easy to overlook. Here’s a quick review:

  • In 2003, ALA created the “Libraries and the Internet Tool Kit” and updated it in 2013. Its purpose is to help librarians manage Internet use and educate their patrons.
  • In June 2009 the ALA Council approved “Minors and Internet Interactivity: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/minors-internet-activity)
  • In 2014, the Interpretation was revised and renamed “Minors and Internet Activity.” It speaks to the value of minors’ use of interactive Web tools for academic pursuits and creative expression.
  • In 2010, AASL established Banned Websites Awareness Day (http://www.ala.org/aasl/advocacy/bwad/) to remind administrators, school boards, parents, and the general public about restrictive filtering in schools and its impact on students’ educational experiences.
  • In 2012, AASL added questions about filtering to its national longitudinal survey “School Libraries Count!” Survey results revealed that 94 percent of schools use filters, and 73 percent of respondents disclosed that there is no differentiation between filtering for elementary students and high school seniors. Not surprisingly, 52 percent of school librarians reported that filters impact student learning by inhibiting student research, 42 percent stated that filters ignore the social process involved in learning, and 25 percent perceive that filters discourage online collaboration (AASL).
  • In 2014, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Office for Information Technology Policy published “Fencing out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act Ten Years Later.” The report provided a record of the extent of filtering in schools, its negative impact, and produced four recommendations to take action against the current filtering situation. The report and recommendations are available at http://connect.ala.org/files/cipa_report.pdf/.
  • In June 2015, ALA Council approved “Internet Filtering: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” Written with input from public, academic, and school librarians, it lays out the weaknesses of filters, their impact on K-12 instruction and student learning, and asks schools to create a time-sensitive process for unblocking mislabeled websites.

These accomplishments were achieved through the work of many ALA and AASL committees and individuals with strong opinions about filtering and supporting students’ First Amendment right to receive information in libraries. Yet two years after the “Fencing out Knowledge” report was released, there is still no organized action on the recommendations including the two most important for K-12 schools:

  • “Develop a toolkit for school leaders,” and
  • “Conduct research to explore the educational uses of social media platforms and assess the impact of filtering in schools” (Batch).

What Can YOU Do?

Filtering is here to stay; and although ALA and AASL have taken positive action, restrictive filtering is still the norm in many schools. What is your role in affecting change? Here are a few ideas.

  • Begin (or continue) a conversation about filtering in your school.
  • Share the “Fencing out Knowledge” report findings on the impact of restrictive filtering on students’ education with your administrators, colleagues, and parents.
  • Advocate for reducing the level of filtering to meet CIPA’s requirements but not affect access to Internet sites and interactive tools used for instruction and student research.
  • Acknowledge minors’ First Amendment rights by creating a system for students to request unblocking of mislabeled filtered websites that are not obscene, child pornography, or material harmful to minors (Adams, 113-114).
  • Talk to AASL leaders about initiating action on the “Fencing out Knowledge” recommendations.

Your efforts, combined with allies in the library and education communities, can make a difference in reducing over-reliance on filters and moving schools toward an emphasis on instruction and developing students’ personal decision-making online. Not only will this change produce a better learning environment, but it will also guide students to become responsible digital citizens.

 

Works Cited:

Adams, Helen R. “Part 4: What Are School Libraries Doing?” In Intellectual Freedom Manual, edited by Trina Magi and Martin Garnar, 113-114. 9th ed. ALA Editions, 2015.

American Association of School Librarians. 2012. “Filtering in Schools: AASL Executive Summary.” http://www.ala.org/aasl/advocacy/research/slc/2012/filtering (accessed December 5, 2015).

Batch, Kristen R. “Fencing Out Knowledge: Revisiting the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later.” Policy Brief No. 5. June 2014. American Library Association, Office for Information Technology Policy and the Office for Intellectual Freedom.  http://connect.ala.org/files/cipa_report.pdf (accessed December 11, 2015).

Federal Communications Commission. “Guide: Children’s Internet Protection Act.” https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/childrens-internet-protection-act (accessed December 9, 2015).


Helen R. Adams, MLS, is an online instructor for Antioch University-Seattle in the areas of privacy, intellectual freedom, ethics, and copyright. A Wisconsin resident, she formerly worked as a school librarian and served as president of AASL. She is a member of the ALA American Libraries Advisory Committee, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, the ALA Privacy Subcommittee, the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board, a KQ Blogger, and the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (Libraries Unlimited 2013). Email: hadams1@centurytel.net.

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