Public schools receiving eRate discounts would be required to install internet-content filters on their computer systems, according to a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. A similar measure was approved by a Senate subcommittee the following week and was headed for a vote in the full Senate at press time.

The general news media paid little attention to the House action, which came late in the evening of June 17 amid a flurry of controversial legislation. The filtering measure is one part of a broad juvenile justice bill, which, among other things, would let public schools post the Ten Commandments. Just a day later, the House shot down a contentious gun reform bill.

In spite of its low profile, passage of the House version of the internet-filter proposal was not lost on some its fiercest critics.

The day after the House approved the juvenile justice bill by a 287-139 margin, the American Library Association (ALA) released a statement denouncing the filtering provision.

“This amendment would impose a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that undermines local decisions made by libraries, schools, and their governing boards on how to provide a safe and rewarding experience for children in using the internet,” said ALA President Ann Symons.

The amendment was offered by Republican Reps. Bob Franks of New Jersey and Chip Pickering of Mississippi. Franks originally introduced the idea to the House as a stand-alone bill called the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

“For generations, schools and libraries have routinely decided what books are appropriate for children to read,” Franks said in a statement. “The Children’s Internet Protection Act would merely require that these institutions exercise the same standard of care when it comes to the internet.”

The Senate’s version of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was approved by the Commerce Committee on June 23.

Meanwhile, the House’s juvenile justice bill, filtering mandate included, has been introduced in the Senate and is likely headed to committee.

Either way, the mandate would require schools and libraries to use filtering technology if they receive any federal subsidies for internet connections. The proposal, though, would let local school districts and library boards determine for themselves which filter to install.

Critics argue that no internet filter is foolproof. Because many types of filters block content containing certain key words, students might be locked out of web sites about AIDS, breast cancer, gay rights, and sex education, among others, critics say.

More sophisticated content-filtering applications use alternative screening methods in addition to or instead of keyword blocking.

But no matter how schools address the legislation if it’s enacted, a new financial burden will result.

A last-minute compromise on the Senate bill produced a change that would allow filtering software to be eligible for eRate discounts. According to current program rules, filtering software is not eligible for eRate support.

Still, schools and libraries would have to pay up to 80 percent of the cost of the software themselves.

Schools that choose to disregard the mandate, meanwhile, would lose future eRate considerations. But that’s not all. Because the amendment is retroactive, they also would be required to pay back discounts already received for the period commencing with the law’s start date.

Over the last 18 months, $1.9 billion has been committed to schools and libraries for discounts of as much as 90 percent on telecommunications services, internet access, and wiring. The Federal Communications Commission recently approved $2.25 billion in funding for this year.

American Library Association

http://www.ala.org

Rep. Bob Franks

http://www.house.gov/bobfranks

Rep. Chip Pickering

http://www.house.gov/pickering

Sen. John McCain

http://www.senate.gov/~mccain