With Senate passage on July 23 of The School Internet Filtering Act, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., it looked like a pretty safe bet that schools from coast to coast will be searching for more internet-content management software in the near future. The McCain bill, and its counterpart in the House, would require schools and libraries receiving eRate funds to install filtering software to control internet access from computers used by students or the public.

Despite opposition by the Clinton Administration and education groups, the measure seemed to be gathering momentum. Dozens of software companies have leapt into the filtering market, so K-12 decision makers have no shortage of options to choose from. Not all filters are the same, however, and your decision will ultimately depend on your schools’ specific needs and where you stand on filtering.

The filtering debate

Who should control what students see on the internet has been the topic of heated debate ever since educators learned last year that eRate funds might be available to wire schools and libraries to the internet. Proponents of filtering software– computer applications that prevent internet users from accessing certain sites on the world wide web– say the software is necessary to protect youngsters from objectionable material online.

Opponents of federally mandated filtering say internet-content issues should be resolved at the local level, not by lawmakers and bureaucrats in Washington. What’s more, they point out, software solutions aren’t 100 percent reliable. Indeed, both critics and proponents say, software filters can give educators and stakeholders a false sense of security.

An executive of a company producing internet-content management products expressed his concern about complacency in remarks at the National Press Club on July 23. Michael Sears, president of SurfWatch Software, a division of Spyglass Inc. , warned that filtering legislation could lull parents and educators into a false sense of security causing them to think that all areas of the internet are safe for children.

“Make no mistake about it,” said Sears, “there are sharp edges online for children. SurfWatch admires Congress’ efforts to protect children, but these sharp edges are not going to go away . . . .”

Another problem opponents of the legislation cite is identifying possible political biases of the software publishers. That can be difficult, critics insist, because many of the companies that sell filtering and screening applications don’t publish the criteria they use to decide which web sites to block.

Finally, opponents of the legislation argue, the content-filter measure in its current form could cost local taxpayers millions.

Most filtering software publishers charge both an initial installation fee and an annual fee for upgrading the list of sites to be banned. Supporters of filtering say stand-alone solutions cost only between $30 and $40. But that’s per computer.

As more schools connect their computers to centralized networks, server-based solutions are likely to become the software of choice. Some filtering companies now offer an unlimited user fee of about $7,000; others charge from $6 to $24 per student.

At those rates, a school district of 2,500 students would shell out between $15,000 and $60,000 each year. A district such as Los Angeles Unified, with 900,000 students, could easily spend $6 million a year on licensing.

Know your stuff

School technology buyers naturally are concerned about cost, so it pays to know how filtering systems work. You want to know exactly what you’re getting. Some inexpensive filtering solutions might end up limiting your users to the point where the internet becomes a stagnant, ineffective research tool. Still, you may not have the kind of funds to buy a state-of-the-art proxy server and sophisticated filter capability.

The costs vary widely from vendor to vendor. Pricing on most software solutions is made up of a one-time set-up charge and a monthly fee. The monthly fee is generally for on-going maintenance, trouble-shooting, support, and regular upgrades.

Ask about these services. If you’re paying several thousand dollars a month, for example, you want to make sure you’re going to have round-the-clock tech support for any piece of hardware or software you might have purchased or licensed.

Be aware that there might be other associated costs as well. If, for example, you’re licensing a proxy server solution that resides at a remote location, know that you might have to pay to get your schools wired with the appropriate equipment.

Choosing your filtering solution

Among the numerous specific brands, you’ll choose between two general categories of filtering software–a “stand-alone” application, which is loaded on a freestanding computer, or a “proxy-server” application, which resides on a single computer that serves numerous end users across a network.

The latter configuration offers more control, because each workstation (“client”) must go through the server to access the internet. All updating and configuring is done at one location, instantly affecting all the client computers. Such “server-side solutions” often let you configure individual clients as well as the network as a whole. This means you can manage and deploy the filtering software across an entire network, while still allowing various users–administrators, teachers, and students, for example–to have distinct levels of access to the internet.

URL lists vs. word-matching

When selecting a software solution, you’ll want to know exactly how it works. The two basic ways of blocking access to web sites are URL lists and word-matching. (URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator, an internet “address” that usually starts with http://www . . . .) Word-matching is losing favor, however, because that method can result in blocking too broadly.

Word-matching works like this: As data from a web site is downloading, the software searches for any words previously deemed offensive in its address line or text. If there’s a match, the download is stopped, and the web site is blocked.

This is a slow process that can significantly impair performance when downloading text-heavy pages. Useful information also can be blocked inadvertently. Sites generally deemed unobjectionable can be blocked for containing words such as “couple.” On the other hand, word-matching won’t block images, not matter how objectionable, unless a keyword deemed offensive appears in the image’s text tag.

Blocking by means of URL lists involves archiving a string of web addresses in a database. The lists can be either “allowed-site” or “blocked-site” addresses– sometimes called “white lists” and “black lists,” respectively. Allowed-site lists include web addresses that have been determined safe for student viewing. Surfwatch’s Education Edition, for example, includes five “white lists” of sites deemed appropriate for young viewers.

Similarly, EdView uses a Yahoo!-like search engine and a category listing that allows students to access only a pre-approved list of sites–in effect creating an “intranet” of appropriate addresses.

But critics say this approach prevents users from branching out into new areas and discovering new research tools and sites. With the rapid changes of the world wide web, any list of appropriate sites is likely to become obsolete unless it is updated regularly and often.

Few filtering companies claim to “block” sites. Instead, they assign web addresses into recognizable categories that you can either choose to allow your students to access or not. The categories are updated regularly– oftentimes daily– as new sites appear on the web.

While filtering solutions came under attack initially for over- or under-blocking with little user control, today’s technology is much more sophisticated. Most solutions allow administrators to determine the level of access that will be allowed. If you buy a solution that resides on a server, it can usually be configured from a central location, without having to go from work station to work station. A central administrator can even easily set up multiple levels of access for different users — your teachers, high school students, and kindergartners, for example.

The solutions

A comprehensive list charting the salient information about the various internet-content management solutions accompanies this report. What follows here is a closer look at some of the leading products available to schools. Each of the following software solutions make special editions (and pricing) available to schools. Most of them will let you try the service for free on the web; contact individual companies for more information.

Bess (N2H2)
http://www.n2h2.com (800) 971-2622

Based in Seattle, Wash., N2H2 has been providing its Bess filtering solution to schools since 1995. N2H2’s recent deal with search technology leader Inktomi Corp. has given it the “most comprehensive list” of sites on the internet, said Pat Marker, director of business development. The deal will help N2H2 capture web addresses and develop a search engine that will return only “clean” hits to search requests, the company said.

Sites are reviewed on a daily basis by staff members and put into one of Bess’s 32 categories. The filter resides either on a proxy server at the school site or on one of the company’s servers. The solution also offers a “cache-on-demand” service, which can significantly speed the time it takes to retrieve documents from the internet.

All categories are customizable, and administrators can get full reports on work-station usage. The company can also customize the web interface for schools. For example, it can be tailored so that each screen has a button that will hotlink the user directly back to the school’s home page.

N2H2 is currently revamping Bess.com, the “white list” web site that lists 50,000 URLs that have been deemed safe for kids. Further, a search engine is being developed that will return only “clean” site hits for requests.

Chris McMahon, the director of technology at Belleville Public Schools District #118 (Ill.), recently chose Bess for his schools after extensive research of filtering solutions. McMahon stressed Bess’s flexible levels of security, cost, and ease of administration as the reasons he chose the product over others. McMahon said that the $13,600 he plans to spend on Bess over the next 18 months is a little higher than some of the other brands, but he felt the solution was well worth the price.

While pricing varies depending on the length of the agreement and the number of work stations in your schools, expect to pay a $4,000 initial start up fee, which covers your hardware, software, and configuration costs– and anywhere from $.25 to $1 a month per work station for your ongoing tech support, monitoring, and daily updates, said Marker.

PlanetGood (BrowseSafe)

http://www.browsesafe.com (877) 366-SAFE (7233)

Based in Indianapolis, Ind., BrowseSafe’s PlanetGood is a customized version of the Netscape or Internet Explorer browsers. It comes in three levels: PlanetWow!, for kids 10 and under, features on-screen instruction and access to games, activities, and age-appropriate information on the web; PlanetCool!, for teenagers, offers graphics, a focus on teen issues, and access to a higher level of intellectual content; and PlanetHome! is intended to provide adults a broad range of access to the internet.

Any web site that has been determined objectionable by PlanetGood’s reviewers is excluded from all three modes of browsing. If a user comes across a site that has not yet been reviewed by the company, a prompt to eMail the review team with the site addresses pops up automatically.

Another feature unique to PlanetGood, said CEO and President Mark Smith, is that a site’s sub-URLs can be distinguished and categorized individually. That means students are denied access only to the parts of a web site that are deemed inappropriate without being blocked from material that might still have educational value, Smith explained.

Smith said PlanetGood gives parents and administrators the assurance of “absolute safety” for young users. “We’re not a ‘sitter’ or a ‘patrol,'” he added. “We’re what’s good on the web.”

PlanetGood runs from a remote proxy server maintained by the company. That means that because users are “sharing” categories with one another, rather than using categories located on their own district proxy server, that the company has to assist with (and charge an extra fee for) any customization, such as adding or deleting a web site from a category list.

PlanetGood is considered an ISP (internet service provider) solution, so prices will vary according to school system needs; call PlanetGood for more information.

SurfWatch http://www.surfwatch.com

(800) 458-6600

Surfwatch, located in Los Altos, Calif., offers an education edition that comes with two filters: one is an “exclusion list,” and the other is a list of accessible sites called the “virtual sand box.” You might choose the inclusion list for younger students or for a class working on a specific assignment but select the exclusion (or “no”) list for general browsing purposes, said Theresa Marcroft, director of marketing.

Surfwatch’s “white lists” were compiled by partner organizations such as the National Science Foundation and Yahooligans. SurfWatch lets you “turn off” the global internet and allow students access only to sites on the pre-defined white lists, said Marcroft. SurfWatch also lets you “turn on” the global internet while still preventing student access to objectionable sites on its blocked-site list.

General Manager Michael Sears said that what makes SurfWatch different is its “well-publicized criteria” for blocking sites. “SurfWatch doesn’t come with a political or religious agenda attached to it,” Sears said. “I want you to understand how I do my filtering.”

Sears said that Surfwatch’s fee structure is “extremely competitive.” SurfWatch charges a one-time fee that includes a year’s worth of technical support and daily updates. The fee runs between $495 and $3,500 for the year, depending on the number of work stations, said Marcroft.

WebSENSE (NetPartners) http://www.netpart.com

(800) 723-1166

San Diego, Calif.’s NetPartner developed WebSENSE to give users (initially in a business setting) maximum flexibility. WebSENSE allows schools to choose from 30 blocked-site categories such as gambling, racism/hate, and “tasteless.” WebSENSE was one of the first solutions designed for a networked environment, said Brian Wampler, a company spokesman.

Wampler said the product’s strength is in its ease of use and reporting features. It runs as a proxy server and can be centrally maintained and administered.

WebSENSE employs 12 full-time internet “researchers” who add 3,500 – 5,000 new sites to its categories every week, and daily updates are automatic, said Wampler.

All of WebSENSE’s category lists are customizable, and the administrator selects which ones to turn off and on. WebSENSE will also allow you to produce detailed reports that describe the activity of each work station.

WebSENSE’s education edition is the same as its product for small businesses, but schools are offered a 20 percent discount off the retail price. Wampler said a site license for a large school system would go for around $4 per computer per year.

Protect yourself

Finally, a word about protecting your students’ rights while protecting yourself from litigation.

The single biggest problem with URL lists is how the lists of “banned” sites are created. An educator won’t always know the political or religious affiliations of the companies creating the stoplists–and that could spell trouble for schools and libraries.

A public library in Loudoun County, Va., outside Washington, D.C., for example, found itself the target of a lawsuit because it employed Log-On Data’s X-Stop Software.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a local group, Mainstream Loudoun, charge that this violates library patrons’ First Amendment rights, because the software blocks not only pornographic sites but also the sites of universities and on-line newspapers.

Schools could face similar legal challenges if they don’t thoroughly review the criteria used by the content-filter publisher, said internet activist Michael Sims of the Censorware Project.

To protect yourself, ask to see the criteria the company used when selecting sites for the stoplists, suggests SurfWatch’s Sears. If you don’t see the criteria published, he said, there might be something to hide.

Find out how often web sites are added to the list of blocked sites, he suggested. With more than 10,000 new sites going up on the internet every day, according to Sears, you want to make sure that your filters are current.

Filtering Facts

American Library Association’s Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries

American Association of School Library’s Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning

TIFAP: The Internet Filter Assessment Project

A Dozen Reasons Why Schools Should Avoid Filtering

ICONnect online course on filters and PICS (An American Association of School Librarians initiative)

Family Friendly Libraries

Kids OnLine

Texas ISP Association’s Filtering Guide for Parents

Center for Responsible Use of Information Technologies

Policing the Net: ZDNet’s Filtering Software Reviews

Additional Links

Text of S. 1619
ftp://ftp.loc.gov/pub/thomas/c105/s1619.is.txt >

Senator John McCain

The Censorware Project

The American Civil Liberties Union http://www.aclu.org