In 2000 Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act also known as CIPA. The law requires schools that accept specific types of federal funding certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures, also known as Internet filters. The filters must be installed on all school computers used by minors and adults. The filters are to protect against visual images of child pornography, obscenity, or material harmful to minors as defined by federal law.
Some states also require filtering to be eligible for selected types of state funding. The Internet Safety Policy has an additional laundry list of requirements, including the monitoring of minors’ online activities, and access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet. Another requirement of CIPA was added in 2011: schools must now educate students about inappropriate behavior online. Specifically, CIPA requires teaching about interacting with other individuals on social networking sites and in chat rooms, and cyber bullying awareness and response.
It is now over a decade since CIPA was approved by Congress. Anecdotal evidence from school librarians indicates that many schools are misinterpreting CIPA’s filtering requirements and over-blocking legitimate educational and constitutionally protected Internet content. In some schools, the very strict filtering amounts to a virtual lockdown of the Internet. Nervous school administrators are choosing to err on the side of overprotection by filtering online content far beyond the intent of the law.
To determine the extent of filtering in schools, in 2012, AASL added filtering questions to its annual school libraries count, National Longitudinal Survey. The survey found that 94% of schools use internet filters. 73% of respondents stated that there was no differentiation between filtering for elementary students and seniors in high school.
In 2014, ALA published Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later. It included examples of excessive filtering. It reported schools throughout Road Island blocked a total of 89 content categories. This included the Social Opinion category, resulting in blocking such websites as the ACLU, the National Organization for Marriage, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. None of the blocked filter categories matched the definitions of content prohibited by CIPA.
The same report found that in Nebraska, some schools block access to websites containing information about foreign countries, even though the sites are required reading on the advanced placement curriculum. The report also found that social networking websites and those that are interactive or collaborative are heavily blocked. This, despite the recognition by the FCC of the positive value of these sites in schools. More information about the ALA Fencing Out Knowledge report is located in the key resources bibliography.
Not only are sites blocked, but some schools it is incredibly difficult to have a site for teachers unblocked in a timely fashion. AASL’s survey revealed time lags of between one to two hours up to a week or longer after a request is made to unblock instructional websites. These time lags create a nightmare for teachers trying to use the Internet for instruction. These statistics tell us the impact filters have on teachers, but what about students? Overly restrictive filtering blocks access to legitimate websites and interactive online tools needed by students to complete academic assignments, conduct personal research, and share creative expression.
AASL’s survey respondents indicated that in their opinions filtering has a negative impact on student learning. 52% said filtering inhibits student research. 42% felt that restrictive filtering fails to recognize the social aspects of learning. And 25% felt it discouraged online collaboration opportunities. These opinions correlate with survey results reporting 88% of schools blocking social networking sites and interactive web tools.
CIPA requires school districts accepting E-rate funding to educate K-12 students about appropriate social media behavior. However, teaching digital literacy is not entirely productive if students have no opportunities to test their skills. There’s another price to be paid by students. Economically secure students with personal computers and home Internet access can avoid school computers and work at home. However, homeless students or those living in poverty are forced to rely on school or public library computers, with their filtered access.
Access to information is one of the core values of school librarians. Is there anything we can do to lessen the impact of filters? The answer lies in working with principals and other administrators. We can help administrators understand the negative effect of filters, by gathering real life examples from teachers in all disciplines and grade levels. The data will demonstrate how aggressive filtering affects instruction and teachers' ability to meet state standards.
After the data has been collected, school librarians can advocate for a variety of strategies to reduce the effects of aggressive filtering and improve students' instructional experiences. Begin with advocating for reducing filtering to a minimal level that satisfies CIPA’s requirements, but does not restrict the instructional and learning environment. Work toward a more time sensitive system for unblocking sites needed by teachers. Train students to be their own filter, by creating a K-12 digital citizenship curriculum. Protect minor’s First Amendment rights to information by establishing a procedure to unblock websites that were mistakenly blocked and do not encompass information that is obscene, child pornography, or material harmful to minors.
Ironically, CIPA was originally approved to protect students online. But unfortunately, it is now affecting students’ learning and educational opportunities in negative and unequal ways, and endangering their First Amendment right to receive information and ideas.