Issues in Digital Technology in Education/The Reality of Internet Filtering/Blocking

The Reality of Internet Filtering/Blocking

By G. Chabrol.

While every educator will agree that the value of the computer and the Internet as an educational aid to learning is no longer debatable, there remain grave concerns about how much inappropriate material is on the Internet and how best to avoid it reaching students. As students become more computer savvy, this situation becomes more acute as they soon find ways to access it anyway. Besides the social (communication) and political (freedom of speech) ramifications of this issue, an additional problem is that digital technology is not static. It is constantly evolving, changing and expanding. As soon as a solution protocol is found, the technology improves and the issue of filtering is exacerbated. But is Internet filtering/blocking desirable? The overwhelming point of view in the literature suggests that it is not desireable.

The issue is succinctly stated by T. A. Callister Jr. et el. In, Just Give It To Me Straight: A Case Against Filtering The Internet:

“One of the most controversial and contentious issues surrounding the use of new information and communication technologies, especially in schools and libraries, is whether or not authorities should filter students’ access to the Internet. Like other kinds of “filter”, Internet filters keep out “bad” content while allowing “good” content to pass through (Callister et el.2004).

Callaister et el. Agrees that every parent has a right to monitor what their children are exposed to on the Internet and television. But “Schools and libraries, on the other hand, have a wider educational responsibility to expose students to a broader range of ideas, experiences and point of views” (Callister et el.). More schools than ever are being equipped with computers with access to the internet. This is both a good thing and a problematic in other ways. It is good for the purpose of education and learning as students are hooked up to the world and there is no limit to research potential. Conversely, they can and will in all likelihood be exposed to inappropriate material, often unsolicited. It then must fall on the teacher/school to ensure a secure screening method is used. They must screen for content and be aware of the Board’s policies on this matter. Many Boards for instance have policies prohibiting the use of inappropriate language, hate material, racist comments, sexism, etc.

There are any numbers of ways to do this. For instance, computers in the lab/class could be blocked by the teacher to certain sites which are deemed inappropriate. Or, the computer could be loaded only with specific material peculiar to the curriculum thus excluding the need to use the internet. Some schools use site licenses to load DVD’s and run all programmes from it. Alternatively, where Boards of education may have their own servers, as many of them do today, access to certain sites are blocked centrally. What level of access is desired is determined by such things as grade level and Board policy. However, the practice of denial of access is a controversial issue. For instance, as noted in her book, “Access Denied”, Lynn Sutton (2006), from as far back as 2000, “the Commission On Online Child Protection presented its final report (COPA, 200) to the congress” (Sutton, p.11). Essentially, “The report stated that the best internet filtering technologies can be highly effective in directly blocking access to content that is harmful to minors, but noted that there are significant concerns about first amendment issues when filters are used in libraries and schools” (Sutton, p.11). By and large, “the vast majority of content is blocked because it is sexually explicit, though chat rooms, email and software downloads are also formats that are commonly blocked” (Sutton, p.11).

In 2004, L.B Ayre conducted a study that also looked at the status of filtering technology (Sutton, p.11). He noted that filters used several methods for blocking data: word blocking…and site blocking, which matches URLs against a list of predetermined sites (Rosenburg, 2001) (Sutton, p.11). Another commission to study the use of Internet filtering technology was the Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content” of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Resource Council” (Sutton, p.11). They found that “due to the nature of filters, ‘underblocking’ and ‘overblocking’ errors are inevitable” (Sutton, p.11). Based on this study, one of their findings was that “while the issue of underblocking and overblocking should not, in and of in itself, rule out filters as a useful tool, the extent of underblocking and overblocking is a significant factor in understanding and deciding the use of filter” (Sutton, p.12) (Thornburg ). They further noted legal challenges to government – mandated filters focused primarily on underblocking and overblocking problems” (Sutton, p.12). But perhaps their more telling conclusion is that “social and educational strategies”, more than technologies are most useful. (Sutton, p.12)

At the same time, schools, perhaps motivated among other things, by the fear of liable suites{Change to "libel suits", please?}, are increasingly installing filtering technology ostensibly for the protection of students. For instance, “since 2001, the children internet protection act requires schools receiving the federal communication commissions universal service e-rate discount to install “technology protection measures” (i.e. filters) on computers with internet access” (Sutton, p.12). Because of this action, “according to Cattague and Farris (2001), the e-rate program has been largely responsible for the increase in internet access in public schools” (Sutton, p.12). This notwithstanding, Sutton argues, the individual rights to free speech remains important and would be challenged if the government should impose limits. The advantages of filters in school libraries was studied by Josh (2001), Powell and Bailey (1999). They found that the reduced chances of a student accessing “inappropriate material must be balanced against the knowledge that any kind of commercial filter will almost certainly block appropriate material, with a corresponding risk of violating students’ “first amendment right” (Sutton, p.13). This position is not unanimous however. According to some speech advocates such as Callister and Burbules, (2003); Knanich (2004) and Willard, (2003), they are quite open in their assertion that using filters are over-protective and “damaging in the long run” (Sutton, p.12).

All of this is not lost on the students. As more students become technologically savvy, they are becoming increasingly more frustrated with limitations on their Internet access in schools” (Sutton, p.13). Levin and Arafeh (2000) conducted studies that looked at the attitudes and behaviours of students using the Internet in schools. In their work, they used qualitative methods to describe these students’ reactions. They summarize the frustration by students this way: “while many students recognize the need and or desire to shelter teenagers from inappropriate material and adult-orientated commercial ads, they complain that blocking and filtering software raise significant barriers to their legitimate, educational use of the internet” (p.19) (Sutton, p.13).

In her book, “Access Denied”, Lynn Sutton (2006), noted “[B]ecause of the legal controversies surrounding the Children’s Internet Protection Act in recent years, the literature has been filled with various kinds of studies and opinion pieces on the effectiveness of filters” (p.13). She noted that the Kaiser study that is reported in Richardson, et el., 2002, looked at the differences that filters made in removing a large amount of harmless material (p.13). The authors of this study focussed their attention on adolescents’ use of the Internet for health reasons. “The objective of the study was to measure how much pornography-blocking software used in schools and libraries limits access to health information Web sites” (p.13). They found that:

“The use of filtering software in public schools is of special concern, because adolescents’ health concerns often focus on issues related to sexuality, and because those who do not have computers at home rely on schools and libraries for Internet access (p. 2888) (p.15).

The author (of this study) also stated that there is a “surprising lack of empirical studies on blocking errors” (p.15). As a methodology, they used simulations of searching of health information questions. What they found was surprising. “The results showed only minimal overblocking of litigitimate health sites at the “least restrictive” level, but significantly more overblocking at the “most restrictive” level”. (Sutton, p.14). They also noted that the amount of overblocking varied according to the topic, but such topics as “safe sex’ was blocked much more extensively than others such as breast cancer, for instance. These findings prompted the authors of the study to put forth the following warning: There may be principled reasons why some schools or libraries choose to block more than pornography, including some kinds of health information. These decisions, however, should be viewed as important policy decisions and not mere technical configuration issues to be left to network administrators” (p. 2893).

The importance of this argument is emblematic of the discourse in this field. For instance, as Sutton (2006) points out, “in a statement to the Kaiser Study, noted free speech activist Nancy Williard (2002) emphasized the dangers of oveblocking at the most restrictive level and states “this study clearly demonstrates the concerns about placing reliance on filtering software” (p.3). Countering this position, H. Auld, author of the article “Filters work: Get over it” in American Libraries (2003) believes that he study’s findings indicated that filters, when operated at their least restricted setting, posed only a minor impediment to searching for health information (for instance)” (Sutton, p.15) Another impediment to access is that schools that implement internet blocking software will block at a minimum tens of thousands of sites inappropriately because the Web pages are miscategorised (p.15). So in effect, “the level of filter settings can be identified as a key element in the overall effectiveness of a filtering program”(Sutton, p.15).

So in conclusion, although Internet filtering/blocking software has been subjected to some intellectual scrutiny in recent years, it is fair to say that, given that there is no clear consensus on its usability, and given that the proliferation of inappropriate material is not likely to end any time soon, a good deal more needs to be done if a viable solution is to be found. In all likelihood, total agreement on this issue will not be found as the issue is too complex. But whatever is developed, a crucial caveat must be adhered to according to Kaiser. He warns “Any complete discussion of the literature on filtering technology must include an accounting of legal challenges to government-ordered restrictions on Internet speech” (p.16). As is agreed by all, protection of our children is crucial. How we go about doing this remains the challenge.

Bibliography. Auld, H. (2003). Filters work: Get over it. American Libraries, 34(2)

Callister Jr. T. A., Burbules, Nicholas C. Phi Delta Kappan, Bloominton, (May 2004), Vol 85.

Kaiser, W. A. (2000, Fall). The use of Internet filters in public schools: Double click on the Constitution. Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, 34(1).

Sutton, Lynn, (2006), Access Denied: How Internet filters Impact Student Learning in High Schools. Cambria Press.