While educators prepare for the possibility of an internet filtering mandate as Congress finishes its work on the education appropriations bill, a new company called Dotsafe is offering its filtering service to schools free of charge.

Phoenix-based Dotsafe provides an advertising-free filtering service for the education and consumer market. The service consists of a proxy server, administrative software, list updates, and reporting features.

According to Neil Kohler, the company’s new chief executive officer, Dotsafe is giving its solution to schools free of charge to spur interest in its consumer and business products.

“Schools are the best place to convince the public that these products are highly effective,” Kohler said. Giving schools free filtering “is a good way for us to demonstrate how effective our solution is.”

Kohler admits that giving free filtering to schools is also great publicity.

“I had a corporate client with 575 employees ask me if Dotsafe could handle that many users, and I could point to the Columbus Public Schools in Ohio, which has 63,000 users. Also, the schools are a terrific reference for us,” he said.

According to Kohler, Dotsafe automatically updates its list of blocked sites every day. And, like most filtering companies, Dotsafe uses a combination of search technologies and human reviewers to ferret out sites that might be inappropriate.

Dotsafe officials claim their company’s search engine reviews 2.5 million web sites per hour and singles out sites containing certain words that raise a red flag of caution. These sites are then passed along to human reviewers, who decide whether or not they should be allowed.

Unlike some other filtering systems, Dotsafe does not feature any commercial advertising on its browser, Kohler said. Dotsafe has placed a public service announcement on the splash page that appears when a computer is booted up, but this disappears immediately, leaving nothing to identify that the Dotsafe program is running.

“No filtering system is 100-percent effective, but we’re very pleased—and so are the schools using Dotsafe,” said Kohler. “Anyone who says they have a perfect solution is ignoring the fact that the internet changes every day.”

According to Kohler, three key factors differentiate Dotsafe’s service from those of other filtering providers.

“First, we provide each and every student with a filtered eMail account. Second, we provide a free web storage account to each user, so [students] can start a web project at school, go home, log on, and work on it from there,” he said.

But Dotsafe’s defining characteristic, Kohler said, is its customized internet activity reporting. This allows parents, teachers, and administrators to see exactly what their kids are looking at, for how long, and at what time of day.

“They can even tell whether that student tried to access a blocked site, and how many times,” said Kohler.

Some educators may be skeptical of the company’s offer, particularly after N2H2 Inc. of Seattle recently announced that schools using its ad-sponsored service would have to pay a subscription fee beginning with the next school year.

But Kohler assures skeptics that, if any changes in Dotsafe’s business model occur, schools that signed up for the free service would not be charged for filtering.

“We may one day decide to charge schools a nominal fee, once we reach a critical mass of enrolled users—but to those who installed Dotsafe during our free enrollment period, it will be free forever,” he said.

Sally Chastain, coordinator of community education services at Talladega County Schools (K-12, enr. 8,000), said Dotsafe’s offer seemed too good to be true.

“It seemed impossible that the service was free,” she said.

The catch, some users may find, is that Dotsafe’s solution is not as flexible in terms of customizability as its competition. Unlike most other filtering systems, Dotsafe does not allow the system administrator to unblock a site that has been blocked out in error or deemed useful by a teacher. Administrators must contact the company to have a site removed from its so-called “hot list.”

Another possible downside of the Dotsafe system is that it does not allow for partial blocking. Most distributors of filtering software give users a way to block only particular categories of offensive web sites, but Kohler said that Dotsafe users are given a single, “mass-media friendly” standard.

This means, for example, that a teacher whose class is doing reports on the Holocaust could not unblock sites related only to hate groups, in order to examine the prevalence of neo-Nazism.

Kohler said Dotsafe plans to release a solution that allows users to filter by category sometime within the next six months, but Talladega’s Chastain does not mind the current system.

“We like the idea of being informed when a clearance [of a web site] is going to occur. To know that a clearance had to be obtained to unblock a site protects the district,” she said.

Sherry Bird Long, director of instructional information services for Columbus Public Schools, says any changes made to the current “mass-media friendly” sites will have to go through a rigorous evaluation process in her district.

“We plan to have a committee to address those types of issues when they arise, and it will be similar to our current criteria for book selection. We don’t want one person to have [the ability to] throw switches on and off,” she said.

Though some educators may see Dotsafe’s service as sacrificing local control in favor of ease of use, Kohler feels it will not be a deterrent to schools.

“We make it as easy as possible for schools to filter, based on standards they use in their own libraries,” he said. “The hardest part is making sure you don’t block out the good stuff.”

Links:

Dotsafe
http://www.dotsafe.com

Columbus Public Schools
http://www.columbus.k12.oh.us/index.html