At the request of Congress, the National Research Council (NRC)-the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences-is launching a study of the tools available to protect kids from pornography on the internet.

The study will examine the capabilities and limitations of filtering software and other computer-based technologies, as well as management policies necessary to ensure safe use of the internet in schools and at home.

“Until now, the issue [of how best to protect students from internet pornography] has been clouded with rhetoric. We want to put the debate on a level playing field,” said Herb Lin, director of the NRC study.

Congress has charged the NRC with providing a foundation for objective local and national debate on the subject of internet pornography, while avoiding specific policy recommendations based on the values of one group or another.

“We plan to outline the pros and cons of each option, but we don’t plan to draw conclusions on what is the ‘best’ solution. We don’t want to impose a set of values on the study, because people and schools all have different values,” Lin said.

Congress actually passed the law that mandated the study, the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act, in 1998, but the study is just now under way. Lin explained that the legislation set a two-year time span for the study to commence but did not offer any funding for the project. “We’ve used the extra time to assemble the funding,” he said.

The program is expected to cost $855,000 in total. Support is being provided by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention ($300,000), the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology ($200,000), the National Academy of Sciences ($125,000), Microsoft Corp. ($100,000), the Kellogg Foundation ($100,000), and IBM ($30,000).

Components of the study

As a result of discussions with the project’s funders, the scope of the study has been altered from the original congressional mandate in two ways.

First, the study now includes non-technological strategies as well as technology options, on the grounds that technology is only one element of a comprehensive approach to internet safety.

Filtering technology “is not perfect. We want schools to find a comprehensive solution,” Lin explained.

Filtering software made by companies such as Cyber Patrol and N2H2 is one option that researchers plan to address, but Lin said there will be no formal system for testing such software.

“We will not be buying copies of all the filtering software available to schools and studying each one, no. This study is not that detailed. We will probably rely on the manufacturers themselves to answer any questions about filtering programs, ” he said.

Other, non-technological strategies to be considered by researchers include acceptable-use policies in schools. But “it is very important that education is included with this, so that students and teachers understand what constitutes ‘acceptable use,'” Lin added.

The second alteration to the original mandate will be an inquiry that centers on pornography as the primary focus of “inappropriate content.” According to the NRC, other areas of “inappropriate content” will be explored incidentally, rather than systematically, and only as they arise in the context of discussions about specific tools and strategies used to shield minors from internet pornography.

Method of study

Lin said there will be no statistical analysis or “number-crunching” involved in the study. Instead, researchers will rely on case studies and testimonies reviewed by a committee of experts.

Among the members of the review panel are Richard Thornburgh, former attorney general in the Reagan and Bush administrations and former governor of Pennsylvania; Nicholas J. Belkin, a professor at Rutgers University School of Library and Information Science; Sandra L. Calvert, director of the Children and Media Project at Georgetown University; Linda Hodge, vice president of programs for the National PTA; Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children and Technology; and Robin Raskin, editor-in-chief of FamilyPC magazine.

“We’re getting testimony and conducting site visits. Also, all educators are encouraged to get in touch with us about their solutions for protecting kids from internet porn,” Lin said. “The NRC wants to see what people who have grappled with this dilemma have to say.”

Anyone wishing to write and submit a white paper on any aspect of the study, provide comments through an online form (yet to be developed), or testify to the committee in person is encouraged to call Lin at (202) 334-3191 or send eMail to hlin@nas.edu.

“We are hoping the study will be released in spring 2002,” Lin said.

Links:

Report: “Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content”
http://www.itasnrc.org

National Academy of Science
http://www.nas.edu

National Research Council
http://www.nas.edu/nrc

U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org

U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology
http://www.ed.gov/Technology

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Kellogg Foundation
http://www.wkkf.org

IBM
http://www.ibm.com