A new report says current internet filtering technology meets most, if not all, the needs and concerns of schools but recommends that vendors train teachers, administrators, and librarians on their products’ specific features so they are better equipped to use them.

The report also recommends that Congress expand the Children Internet Protection Act’s (CIPA’s) definition of “technology protection measures” to include a wider array of technologies that can protect children from inappropriate online content.

The Aug. 15 report, entitled “CIPA Study of Technology Protection Measures,” was prepared for Congress by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Existing technology protection measures are capable of meeting a number of the needs of educational institutions,” the report said. “However, some educators are unaware of the capabilities of these measures or lack the knowledge about how to use many features of the technology protection tools.”

For instance, CIPA, the law that requires federally funded schools to use filters, sometimes allows adults to disable a filter for research purposes–but some educators do not know how to do that.

CIPA charged the NTIA with evaluating whether currently available internet filters adequately address the needs of schools, as well as the development and effectiveness of local internet safety policies.

To do so, the NTIA issued a public request for comment last May that elicited 42 comments from associations, technology vendors, government agencies, university professors, schools, and libraries.

Respondents identified six main needs and concerns that schools have about filters:

  • Balancing the importance of allowing children to use the internet with the importance of protecting children from inappropriate material;
  • Accessing online educational materials with a minimum level of relevant content being blocked;
  • Deciding on the local level how best to protect children from internet dangers;
  • Understanding how to fully utilize internet protection technology measures;
  • Considering a variety of technical, educational, and economic factors when selecting technology protection measures; and
  • Adopting an internet safety strategy that includes technology, human monitoring, and education.

Most respondents agreed filters keep students from being exposed to inappropriate content. “Where filtering fell short of being effective, the situation usually involved either overblocking or underblocking of material,” the report said.

For example, the Consortium for School Networking, which had polled its members, told NTIA that school filters often block web sites that teachers include in lesson plans prepared at home, leaving teachers to scramble at the last minute to find replacements.

Also, some schools expressed concern that the rules for using filters differ for those schools receiving eRate discounts and those receiving U.S. Department of Education (ED) funding. For example, the recipients of ED funds may “disable [filters] for certain use,” and recipients of eRate funds may “disable [filters] during adult use.”

“These provisions generate confusion and reluctance within educational communities about using disabling technology to accommodate override requests for fear of breaching CIPA,” the report said.

N2H2 Inc., which owns about 40 percent of the market share for filtering software in education, said it was pleased with the report.

“N2H2 will immediately begin examining the best ways to help implement the report’s suggestion of providing training for educators on the use of filtering,” company spokesman David Burt said. “Some possibilities include an online teachers guide for using N2H2’s software, online webinars, and live sessions at educational conferences.”

But the Free Expression Policy Project, a New York-based intellectual freedom think tank, said the report reads like a sales pitch for filtering software, even though it outlines the software’s overblocking and underblocking problems.

“The NTIA report is a poor substitute for the much more detailed, thoughtful, and analytically rigorous report released by the National Research Council … last year,” said Marjorie Heins, the group’s director.

See this related link:

“CIPA Study of Technology Protection Measures”
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipa2003/index.html