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 does not feature any commercial advertising on its browser, Kohler said. The company 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.

Some educators may be skeptical of the company’s offer, particularly after N2H2 and ZapMe! recently rescinded their free-to-schools models. 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.”

Nederland Independent School District in Texas (K12, enr. 5,381) uses N2H2’s Bess as its filtering system. Carolyn Worsham, the district’s director of instructional technology, said one of the things she appreciates about Bess is that it gives her the ability to unblock specific web sites herself.

“From my experience, I’d prefer to be able to do that myself,” she said. “I do it often without needing to contact N2H2. Blocking or unblocking sites is a local decision and a local issue. Why add any extra red tape?”

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.

He added that 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 is going to occur. To know that a clearance had to be obtained to unblock a site protects the district,” she said.