Bent on Bias

When eSchool News puts a story in the primary position on its Front Page, it is because we believe that story is important. The research report on filtering and alleged religious bias by Nancy Willard of the University of Oregon’s Responsible Netizen Center for Advanced Technology in Education clearly fills that bill.

But reporting on it, and accepting it are not identical.

Willard’s study is significant, to be sure, and I recommend you read the actual document in its entirety. Significance alone, however, isn’t sufficient reason to embrace the findings of this study in their entirety, and I do not.

Here, in my view, is the primary conclusion this report invites readers to reach: Most—and maybe all—internet content filtering products are biased in favor of the values of the religious right.

In spite of that invitation, the truth of the matter is set forth in one, “no-jury-could-convict-me” escape clause inserted by the author early on. “… It is not possible,” she acknowledges, “to prove or disprove the hypothesis that the companies may be blocking access to material based on religious or other inappropriate bias.”

Trouble is, that’s exactly what the balance of this report sets out to do. And it does so by means of a disquieting logic that seems to rely on a kind of blame by association.

Note in the following passage from the report how the author blends the fact that companies sold their products with the subsequent actions taken by the buyers:

“Three filtering companies, that have a major presence in public schools, are also selling their product to conservative religious Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Most of these conservative religious ISPs are directly stating or strongly implying to their users that the filtering system is filtering in accord with conservative religious values.”

The act of selling a product does not automatically endow the seller with all the characteristics, values, and motivations of the buyer. Even when the buyer goes on to describe the product in terms that will encourage the buyer’s constituents to approve of the purchase, the seller isn’t necessarily supportive or even cognizant of the buyer’s claims.

Another passage underscores the technique. In it, the author cites the posting and subsequent removal of a press release as proof of a relationship between the filtering company N2H2 and the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). “The link between N2H2 and LDS World was identified due to a press release that was briefly posted on the N2H2 web site and follow-up investigation on LDS web sites.”

This news release, according to the author, is the initial cause of her report: “There was a press release on the N2H2 web site noting a contract with the LDS Church. The press release was present for only a short period of time.” In the footnote provided for this passage, the author elaborates: “The rapid removal of this press release, which coincidentally occurred after the author mentioned its presence on an educator mailing list upon which an N2H2 employee lurks, was the incident that stimulated this investigation.”

As the recipient of numerous company announcements, I can testify that a company trumpeting a major sale is among the most common types of news releases issued. What is not clear is that issuing such an announcement is tantamount to embracing the values of the buyer. Such an announcement usually is meant to signal that the company’s products are popular and that the company is doing well.

From the inception of internet filtering, the idea along with the products implementing it have been opposed in some quarters under the banner of free speech and academic freedom. That is an honorable and legitimate point of view.

But an animus toward filtering doesn’t change the fact that an overwhelming majority of our lawmakers enacted legislation requiring schools to manage internet content if they wish to receive certain federal funds. Nor does it alter the fact that internet filtering has broad and deep support among parents, taxpayers, and even educators.

The Netizen report contains some excellent ideas—especially its call for an independent audit board to monitor filtering techniques without compromising trade secrets.

It would be a shame if publishers of internet filtering products were unable to block their understandably defensive reactions to this report’s broad, often-unsubstantiated allegations. Such companies would be better served to grasp the beneficial proposals contained in this report and use them in one more effort to allay the suspicions and concerns of their education customers.

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