Congress backs filter mandate

Grappling with how best to monitor the internet in schools, the U.S. Senate has passed two competing proposals and left it up to a joint panel to forge a compromise.

The proposals, one by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the other by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., both seek to put certain safeguards in place as the number of schools hooked to the internet continues to grow.

“As we wire America’s children to the internet, we are inviting these dirt-bags to prey upon our children in every classroom and library in America,” McCain said. “Parents—taxpayers—deserve to have a realistic faith that, when they entrust their children to our nation’s schools and libraries, this trust will not be betrayed.”

However, some senators complained the McCain amendment is too restrictive for the nation’s schools.

The amendment would invite the Federal Communications Commission to become “the de facto national censor,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said.

“This broad self-censoring imposed by the McCain amendment on schools and libraries will lead to a chilling of free speech to the detriment of our nation’s children and library patrons,” Leahy added.

Thousands of schools have connected to the internet through a 1996 subsidy known as the eRate, which is funded through fees paid by telecommunications companies. Many of these companies pass the fees on to their customers, resulting in higher phone bills.

About 82 percent of the nation’s schools are participating in the program, senators said.

McCain’s amendment, which passed the Senate 95-3 on June 27, would require schools and libraries that benefit from the subsidy to install some form of blocking or filtering technology to restrict children’s access to pornography and other obscene material.

Voting against McCain’s amendment were Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.; Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.; and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Under McCain’s amendment, schools are free to choose any filtering or blocking system that would best fit their community standards and local needs. But detractors fear that the amendment, which would allow the FCC to certify that schools are using the proper filtering materials, gives the agency too much authority.

Santorum’s amendment, which passed 75-24, gives schools the option of installing the blocking technology or developing an “internet use policy.”

“The community, not the federal government, will determine what matter is inappropriate for minors and what is the most effective way to protect children,” Santorum said.

Some education advocates are concerned about the McCain amendment for a few reasons: It takes the decision-making power out of the hands of local school districts, they say, and it creates an “unfunded mandate” by which schools would have to invest in costly filtering software.

Many prefer Santorum’s alternative, which would give schools more flexibility to decide the issue for themselves.

“While I agree that students need protection and supervision, it has been my experience that no filtering software is 100-percent effective, and some can limit the choices to desired educational sites,” said Debi Doherty, technology coordinator for USD 463 in Udall, Kan.

“The needs at our elementary lab are different from the needs at our junior-senior high school,” she added. “Part of the learning process at both schools is the responsible use of the internet; therefore, we already have an internet-use policy established. To give our children a safety net is one thing, but to wrap them in cotton is quite another.”

Not all educators agree. “It’s been my experience that if someone really wants to get around the security, they will find something,” said James E. Ross, technology coordinator for the St. Elmo, Ill., Community Unit School District. “However, I do like the filtering software, because the better-behaved users are kept from accidentally going to [a pornographic site] when they really wanted to go to, and this happens more times than one might think.”

As for the cost factor, Ross said, it’s negligible: “The cost of the software really isn’t that prohibitive when you take into consideration the fact that, by my estimates, I would have to add more computers, network drops, and time to maintain them to make the same resources available for learning that would have been tied up while Johnny surfed porn and camped on Hotmail or chat.”

The two plans, which were attached to a massive spending plan for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services (H.R. 4577), must be worked out by a joint committee of House and Senate representatives.

This is the third year that McCain has proposed his amendment, known as the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Last year, the amendment was attached to the Senate spending bill, but was left out of the final version approved by both branches of Congress.

A less controversial and unrelated internet amendment, offered by Leahy and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and attached to the McCain plan, would require large internet service providers to begin offering filtering software to customers during the next three years.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Federal Communications Commission

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