What bothers me most about the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is that it insults my intelligence and questions my responsibility. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., must believe that we are either stupid–and have no idea how to control internet access on our networks–or completely irresponsible proponents of porn and the access of porn by our students. He must see himself as the white knight of morality riding in to save the taxpayers’ children from the depraved and bumbling teachers and librarians who insist on providing unrestricted access to porn piped directly into classrooms day in and day out.

Beyond the generally insulting tone of the law are some serious issues related to its enforcement–and McCain’s obvious inexperience with filtering technology and alternatives to filtering that can be used to combat this problem.

For those of you who haven’t followed this legislation, CIPA is the latest evolution of bills that attempt to tie eRate funding to the installation of filtering technology. According to this law, schools and libraries that receive eRate funding would have to install filtering technology to block child pornography, other legally obscene material, or material deemed to be “inappropriate for minors.”

Unlike its predecessor (the Child Online Protection Act), which was struck down as unconstitutional for being too vague, CIPA clarifies what is to be blocked with terms such as “legally obscene” and “child pornography,” which have specific legal definitions. The definition of obscene, however, is based on somewhat subjective criteria, such as “contemporary community standards” or “patently offensive” (see link), and often is challenged on a case-by-case basis.

Subjective criteria such as these are sometimes necessary when evaluating the appropriateness of a single book, periodical, or web site, but they work because a thorough discussion of that single work’s merits can take place. What McCain is proposing, however, is not an open evaluation of individual web sites against the criteria for obscenity. Rather, he would leave the gory details of evaluation to private companies that are under no obligation to disclose their policies or to produce a list of sites deemed “obscene.” These companies would have the authority to label a site as obscene without notifying its author. Measurements of “contemporary community standards” and what is “patently offensive” are left to a handful of people who are beholden to no one in the community for their decisions.

More troubling than his willingness to hand over our First Amendment rights to a handful of internet filtering companies is McCain’s apparent lack of understanding of the nature of the problem. In his comments introducing the bill, he said, “As we have seen through an increasing flurry of shocking media reports, the internet has become the tool of choice for pedophiles who utilize the internet to lure and seduce children into illegal and abusive sexual activity. … In many cases, such activity is the product of individuals taking advantage of the anonymity provided by the internet to stalk children through chatrooms and by eMail” (Congressional Record, June 22, 2000, page S5647).

McCain neglected to mention that his filtering legislation would do little or nothing to restrict eMail, instant messaging, or chat, which are the ways that virtually all of these offenses occur.

He also said, “Today [filters] are adaptable, capable of being fine-tuned to accommodate changes in web sites as well as the evolving needs of individual schools and even individual lesson plans” (Congressional Record, Jan. 19, 1999, page S531). The reality is that filtering technology hasn’t changed all that much in the past few years.

The ability to unblock sites and provide different levels of access is nothing new. But doing it well requires technical expertise. The person managing the filter must examine the log files regularly and unblock sites that show up there erroneously. Interpreting these logs requires a basic understanding of how web access works and of hypertext markup language. By forcing schools with limited tech support staff to install filters, CIPA has the potential to subvert a working low-tech solution of observation and education and replace it with an unmanageable technical solution that blocks access to legitimate material.

I do not criticize CIPA for promoting filtering. We filter at our school, and I feel that our system works relatively well. My concern lies in the fact that the government is trying to take the responsibility for determining how best to address the safety of school children out of the hands of local communities and place it in those of a few filtering companies. Furthermore, McCain seems unwilling to accept the fact that most schools that have chosen not to install filters have done so after careful consideration of their options and have made a decision based on principles and pedagogy. He has rejected the notion that a low-tech solution can be just as (or more) effective than a filtering solution.

I know of several schools that have made the decision not to filter based on philosophical reasons. These schools employ numerous low-tech solutions to help teach students how to use the internet responsibly. Some of these include: Placing student workstations only in locations monitored by adults with screens positioned so they can be seen easily, Disabling the ability to auto-hide the Windows task bar to prevent students from hiding pages that have been minimized, Writing a clear acceptable-use policy with specific consequences for violations, Having frank discussions with students about inappropriate material and responsible use of the internet, Restricting computer access to students with specific tasks to complete, and Monitoring, but not blocking, internet access through a proxy server.

CIPA gives no credence to solutions such as these. What is troubling is that these are basics that schools should be doing whether they filter or not. CIPA requires none of them, nor does it mention any of them as acceptable alternatives or supplements to filtering. According to CIPA, a school need only install a filter and do nothing else related to teaching students about using the internet responsibly, and it will be in compliance. In many places, untold numbers of legitimate educational sites will be erroneously blocked, and if the database is not regularly updated, access to “obscene” material will become increasingly available. Meanwhile, nothing will have been done to prepare students to use the internet responsibly when they get home or go to college.

CIPA is so wrong-headed on so many levels that its very existence baffles me. Rather than growing out of a real problem and offering a solution to that problem, it comes from fear and a lack of trust of the adults in charge of schools and libraries. Sure, a problem exists, but the problem is not the kid who looks at dirty pictures while he’s supposed to be doing a history paper. The problem is the teen-ager who comes home to an empty house and sits in front of his computer unsupervised for hours. The problem is the online service that permits adults to send unsolicited instant messages and eMail to children. The problem is the parent who has never talked to his child about what he does online or doesn’t even know how to turn on the computer.

These are the problems we face, and they are much more complex than McCain would have us believe. Filtering solutions exist that may help combat these problems, but they are imperfect, and they are not the only solution. The most valuable solution is a human one. Students need to feel responsible to a human being who will be pleased with good behavior and disappointed with bad. This is a fundamental component of a teacher-student or parent-child relationship, and it is something that a piece of software can never replace.