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Freedom and Filters

Freedom and Filters
Head for the Edge, February 2003

Like many school districts, ours was coerced into installing an Internet filter during the 2001 school year. We did this to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) guidelines, and so remain eligible for eRate funds in our district.

So now after many years of vociferously and publicly advocating for filter-free Internet access for students, after convincing our school board and technology committee of the wisdom of unfiltered access, and after doing a darned fine job of teaching teachers and librarians why and how to supervise kids using the Internet, we ourselves are filtered.

When we decided to use a filter, I was pretty darned certain the ACLU and ALA would be sending a truck around to pick up my membership cards and possibly inflict on me great bodily harm. I was pretty darned certain that students would rise in revolt after having Internet search after search unreasonably blocked. I was pretty darned certain that the light of education would glow less brightly as a result of the filter’s installation.

I must admit that my pragmatic side had its secret, shameful doubts about the wisdom of not having a filtering device installed in our district. Technology has indeed opened floodgates of information into schools by way of the Internet. And along with marvelous resources on topics of curricular and personal interest, the flotsam and sewage of the Internet had become readily available with in our walls as well. Materials and ideas that had been in the past physically inaccessible to students now could be viewed, both purposely and accidentally, at the click of a mouse button.

The potential of student access to unsavory and possibly unsafe materials on the Internet makes support of intellectual freedom extremely challenging. It is difficult to justify a resource that allows the accidental viewing of graphic sexual acts by second-graders searching for information on “beavers,” communication by an anorexic teen with supportive fellow anorexics, or access by seventh graders to “Build Your Own Computer Virus” websites. Defending unfiltered Internet access seemed quite different from defending The Catcher in Rye.

Yet the concept of intellectual freedom as expressed in both ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights” <www.ala.org/work/freedom/lbr.html> and “Freedom to Read” <www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/freeread.html> statements is as relevant to information in electronic formats as it is in print: We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they need the help of censors to assist them in this task.”

I worry that while preventing access to pornographic or unsafe materials is the reason given by those who advocate restricted access to the Internet in schools, the real motivation is political: keeping impressionable minds away from particular points of view. That is censorship at its most malignant. Even though CIPA has taken the decision to use or not use Internet filters out of the hands of local decision makers, a strong commitment to intellectual freedom on the part of the school library media specialists, technologists, and administrators is not only possible, but even more important in a filtered environment.

The sky did not fall in when we installed our filter. The complaints about over-blocking from teachers and students in the past year have numbered less than a dozen. Why?

 A study conducted in 2002 by the Electronic Freedom Foundation on Internet filtering devices
<www.eff.org/Censorship/Academic_edu/Censorware/net_block_report/20020918_eff_pr.html> reveals some interesting numbers:
  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the least restrictive settings will block between 1/2% and 5% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.
  • Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the most restrictive settings will block up to 70% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.
Internet filters obviously have a wide range of restrictiveness. Depending on the product, the product’s settings, and the ability to override the filter to permit access to individual sites, filters can either block a high percentage of the Internet resources (specific websites, email, chat rooms, etc.) or a relatively small number of sites.

In our role as proponents of intellectual freedom, we need to:
  • Base our choice of filters not on cost or convenience, but on features and customizability.
  • Strongly advocate for the least restrictive settings of installed filters.
  • Generously use the override lists in our Internet filters.
  • Configure at least one machine that is completely unblocked in each library media center so that questionably blocked sites can be reviewed and immediately accessed by staff and students if found to be useful.
  • Continue to help develop and teach the values students need to be self-regulating Internet users.
  • Continue to educate and inform parents and the public about school Internet uses and issues.
  • Continue to create learning environments that promote the use of the Internet for positive purposes.
I have to admit that even after crusading for filter-free Internet access for my school district and then being forced by CIPA to install a filter, the sun still rises. And in some sense, I believe our schools may even be a bit more ethically responsible for using a limited filtering system that keeps the little ones from accidentally accessing inappropriate or even dangerous websites. When chosen, configured and monitored carefully our filter becomes a selection, rather than censorship tool.

But I am watching it very closely.
Posted on Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 06:35PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

how do you unblock the website or just go to a different page to being the restricted one up?

January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Hi Monica,

I am not sure what your question asks.


January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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