School web filtering needs extreme makeover

During a recent symposium on the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), experts agreed that though the law backed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has good intentions, school web filtering software and practices need a major overhaul.

“There are a lot of changes we need to acknowledge that have happened in the last 10 years;” said one panelist. “For instance, Bring Your Own Device [BYOD] adoption. I know in the FCC’s recent update to eRate they’re asking input on how they should cover BYOD in relation to CIPA.”

(Next page: Over-blocking and inefficiencies)

But perhaps the most prevalent concern among all panelists during the “Revisiting the Children’s Internet Protection Act: 10 Years Later” Google+ hangout—part of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) and Office for Intellectual Freedom’s (OIF) larger project on CIPA and access to information—was school web filtering and its effects on 21st century student teaching and learning.

According to Deborah Stone, deputy director of the OIF, many of the lawsuits over the last 10 years involving schools and CIPA deal with issues in constitutional access to information.

Stone explained that though CIPA was originally created to protect children against sexually explicit images, schools and libraries usually have very limited control or discretion when it comes to school web filtering. In fact, most filtering is provided by vendors.

“The issue with CIPA is that it cannot suppress ideas, such as gay and lesbian information, access to Facebook, et cetera. Many times people think it’s the schools or libraries limiting access to these sites. But it’s the vendors, many of whom often have an agenda—for example, religious missions—that block access to information.”

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the information and web services manager for the San Mateo County Library, says many filters are only customizable if they are extremely expensive.

“The way filters work is by blocking IP addresses; keyword analysis–for example, ‘sexy videos’; link analysis; and pixel analysis for things like skin tone and body parts. But all filters differ based on how expensive and sophisticated they are,” she said.

But no matter how expensive or sophisticated the filter, Houghton-Jan says that even the best filter is only 83 percent effective for factors such as link analysis and IP addresses, and only 50 percent accurate for images or videos.

“The question then becomes: ‘Is it okay to use products that are inaccurate at least 20 percent of the time and more for images and videos?” asked Houghton-Jan.

She also argued that when vendors say that their product is 99 percent effective, it means they’re probably over-blocking content.

“When you over-block you’re essentially blocking constitutionally-protected content, which is where the ACLU lawsuits and other lawsuits occur. When you over-block that’s the same as being ineffective, knocking the product back down to about 80 percent effective.”

Outside of filter inaccuracy, she said that it’s “extremely easy” for students to get around filters.

“For example, most filters are English-centric, so if you type in something in another language the filter won’t pick it up,” she revealed. “Also, many times if a student uses a search engine other than Google the filter won’t work. Adult content sites are also starting to limit the number of links so as not to trigger filters; they’ll also misspell words and other tricks. Skin tone analysis is also inaccurate because all you’d have to do is make the image blue!”

(Next page: Solutions to vendor filtering)

What’s the answer?

According to the panelists, vendor web filters need more configurable options for educators and librarians.

“That’s their job–to help guide students around the internet,” said Stone. “So why are we allowing vendors to do this?”

One reason, panelists argued, is that educators and schools are afraid of lawsuits.

“There’s a misconception out there among schools that if the FCC or government catches them being non-CIPA compliant they’ll be sued,” said one panelist. “But that’s not true. Neither the FCC nor the government have the authority to take legal action. The worst that would happen is that the FCC would ask for the eRate funding back.”

“It’s important to note,” he added, “that in CIPA’s 10-year history, no school has ever been asked to give back funding.”

“It should be up to the educators and librarians to make those kinds of calls, to know what can be filtered and what can’t,” said Stone. “We need to put that power back into their hands.”

Christopher Harris, director of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership in New York State, says that educators and librarians also need to focus more on “responsible use rather than acceptable use.”

“School policies should focus on student responsibility,” he said. “That way, they can still address individual rogue access by one student and limit that individual, not the entire student body. There needs to be a culture of flexibility and interactivity, especially concerning BYOD and social media platforms.”

Unfortunately, said Houghton-Jan, educators looking for more effective kinds of vendor filters may be disappointed. She explained that almost no vendor spends money on research and development of their web filtering products; meaning, many schools are dealing with older technology.

Martin Garner, chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee for the ALA, said educators and schools interested in different types of filtering might soon be able to find open source software.

“We asked the question: ‘Is it possible to truly create a CIPA-compliant filter?’ What we keep circling around is some sort of crowd-sourced, open-sourced software that’s extremely configurable.”

He continued: “Because right now most of the filters schools are using are blocking things out like Google Docs and other sharing platforms. How are students supposed to become collaborators and creators of content when they can’t even access basic tools? These filters and policies are chaining us to the past instead of creating competitive, creative people.”

For its part, the ALA says it’s planning on doing a better job of spreading information on CIPA to schools and educators.

Those interested can access the symposium’s panels on ALA’s YouTube channel:

A white paper on CIPA and the symposium’s outcomes will also be released this fall.

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Meris Stansbury

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