Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has reintroduced a bill that would require schools and libraries receiving eRate discounts to install filtering software on their computers. The bill—which is nearly identical to last year’s Internet School Filtering Act, a measure that failed to gain passage—is sure to rekindle the debate over how best to shield children from harmful material on the internet.

Introduced Jan. 19, Senate bill S. 97, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), was cosponsored by Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C. Hollings is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs.

The bill aims to protect kids from sexually explicit material on the web. To be eligible for the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services, schools would have to certify with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they are using or will use a filtering system on all computers with internet access.

“Web surfers using seemingly innocuous terms while searching the world wide web for educational purposes can inadvertently run into adult sites,” McCain said in a statement. “If schools and libraries accept these federally provided subsidies for internet access, they have an absolute responsibility to their communities to [ensure] that children are protected from online content that can harm them.”

Schools and libraries already approved for the eRate also would have to install filters because the measure would apply retroactively, according to Commerce Committee spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi. The bill would require no specific filtering technology, leaving it to local school and library officials to decide which to use.

Closing the loopholes

Last year’s measure, the Internet School Filtering Act, passed in committee but failed to reach a vote on the Senate floor. Pialorsi said the new bill has a better chance of passing, largely because changes to its language purportedly address the free-speech concerns of its critics.

It gives more direction and closes a loophole, she said, by specifying that schools need only block access to material that is “harmful to minors,” the legal definition of unprotected speech. “Local districts themselves can interpret what constitutes ‘harmful to minors,'” Pialorsi added.

The new bill also has been tailored to take into account a federal judge’s ruling. Last November, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that the Loudoun County, Va., public library system could not constitutionally filter internet access for all its patrons. CIPA would require libraries to install filters on at least one computer that could be used by minors.

McCain also tried to distance his bill from the controversy surrounding the similarly named Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which is being contested in court. COPA, which Congress passed last year, would require operators of commercial web sites that publish material deemed “harmful to minors” to verify users’ ages or face fines and imprisonment.

“This legislation [the Children’s Internet Protection Act] will not censor what goes onto the internet, nor will it censor what adults may see, but rather filters what comes out of it onto the computers our children use outside the home,” McCain said.

“In providing universal service discounts for internet access, no federal government body can make any qualitative judgments about the system or the material to be filtered that the school or library has chosen,” he added.

Unfunded mandate

For some critics of the bill, the real focus of concern isn’t free speech, but money.

“While we commend Sen. McCain for taking steps to protect children and for making it a local decision what to filter, it’s still an unfunded mandate,” said Kari Arfstrom, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

Requiring schools to install filters without giving them the means would represent “a serious cost consideration for school districts,” Arfstrom said.

According to McCain’s statement, filtering technology is eligible for subsidy under the eRate program. Not necessarily so, said a representative of the SLD.

“Filtering software and firewalls are not covered by the eRate,” said Jodie Pozo-Olano, deputy director for outreach and communications. However, filtering technology that is bundled into the standard price of eligible equipment—such as an internet file server that comes with an integrated, pre-installed filtering solution—may be covered, she said.