Vice President Al Gore wants Congress to make schools and libraries protect children from objectionable online content and use federal eRate funds to do so. But he stopped short of prescribing how schools should screen out inappropriate content and whether or not technology should be used.

“We must protect our children from the red-light districts of cyberspace,” Gore said. “That is why the President and I are encouraging Congress to pass legislation that would require every school and library using the eRate to develop a plan to protect their schoolchildren from inappropriate content.”

Gore, who many see as crafting his bid for the presidency, called for a measure that would “protect. . . children from inappropriate material while also protecting the First Amendment values we all hold dear.” He addressed his comments to the National Parent Teacher Association conference on March 24 in Washington, D.C., and later issued a more detailed statement.

Gore’s proposal sounds like the Internet Filtering Act introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The bill, which currently is under consideration in the Senate, would force schools and libraries to install filtering and blocking software on computers if they want to receive federal subsidies through eRate, part of the Universal Service Fund.

But Gore does not support the McCain bill, his office told eSchool News. The Clinton administration believes decisions about how to protect children from online indecency should be left to local schools and communities, Gore’s office said.

Supporters of the McCain bill say a federal mandate is necessary to protect the increasing numbers of children who will have access to the internet because of eRate funding. Those against internet filtering hold that decisions about safety and child protection should be made on a local level. They further argue that forcing schools to use filtering software violates First Amendment rights. Gore’s stance would appear to appeal to both camps, observers are saying.

‘Gentleman’s agreement’

Although he didn’t mention the bill or the proposed amendment, many saw the Gore position as endorsing a rewording of the controversial Internet Filtering Act.

If passed, the bill would require schools to define “inappropriate” and then use filtering or blocking technology to shield children from online content. Libraries, too, would be required to have at least one computer running with blocking programs. The bill was voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain heads, on March 12.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., sought to introduce an amendment to the McCain bill that would give schools more options for deciding how they would protect their students online, said Matt Raymond, a spokesman for Burns. The amendment was to be considered along with the main bill in the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on March 12.

But the amendment never was introduced. Instead, said Raymond, McCain made a “gentleman’s agreement” with Burns and Sen. John Breaux, D-La., that the three of them would informally agree on the language of the bill before it went before the full Senate for consideration.

Burns’ concerns were that the McCain bill imposed rigid restrictions on decisions that should be made at a local level, Raymond said, and overvalued the impact of filtering software.

Gore’s proposal is even vaguer, asking that schools merely agree to develop a plan to protect children on the internet. A check box on the eRate application form 470 would confirm that applicants had a plan in place, Gore office said.

“Our plan allows schools to make decisions based on local values,” said the Gore staff member.

Allowing schools to regulate internet access at a local level is what the National Education Association has been advocating, said Deputy Director John Bernstein, who applauded Gore’s statement.

David Sobel, a legal consultant for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), also praised the vice president’s stance. EPIC heads up a consortium called the Internet Free Expression Alliance.

“When a school board certifies that they’ve thought about this issue and have established a policy, it’s going to reflect real dialogue with their communities,” said Sobel. “That’s the way it should be. There should not be a dictate from Washington about what the appropriate road should be.”

Also at issue is how schools should protect their students online. McCain’s office says that the Internet Filtering Act is “technology-based” but not “technology-specific.” If the bill passes, schools and libraries “can choose whatever software and hardware they wish,” said spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi, “but they have to have a technology-based system in place.”

Gore didn’t specify that schools should use technology in their plans, but he did say this: “We must bring the combined power of parents, teachers, and technology together if we are going to protect our students in a way that will work in every community and reflect the values of each community.”

A contender

The latest statement is yet another about-face in the Clinton administration’s stance on internet protection laws.

Only last July, Gore was touting filtering software in the wake of the Communications Decency Act, a law regulating the internet that was struck down by the Supreme Court. At the time, Gore vowed to “make these blocking technologies and the accompanying rating systems as common as the computers themselves.”

Since then, a cadre of civil liberties and education groups have come forward to protest government mandating of filtering software. These groups are concerned about taking away schools’ ability to self-regulate.

Many see schools and the internet becoming one of the issues to emerge in the forefront as Gore prepares to hit the presidential campaign trail.

National Parent Teacher Association
http://www.pta.org

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.org

Senator John McCain
http://www.senate.gov/~mccain/

Senator Conrad Burns
http://www.senate.gov/~burns/

Senator John Breaux
http://www.senate.gov/~breaux/

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org