Protecting children from online pornography is a constant political issue on Capitol Hill, and local school boards could find themselves handed yet another federal mandate telling them how to do their jobs. The U.S. Senate recently added amendments to a large spending bill requiring schools and libraries to block student access to pornography on the Internet–despite any evidence that such institutions have turned themselves into electronic red-light districts. The toughest proposal is the Children’s Internet Protection Act, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).
If enacted, it would require schools using federal funds to install filtering technology to block access to pornography, violence, and other material “inappropriate” to minors. Schools would need certification from the Federal Communications Commission that such protections were in place.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), sponsored a law requiring all schools and libraries who receive federal funding to install Internet content filters, which was passed into law on December 21, 2000. This new law requires schools and libraries to maintain and enforce a policy of monitoring the online activity of minors by having in place an Internet Safety Policy that includes the use of Internet access by children and implementation of technology that will filter out objectionable content. Such a policy should use technology to block access to obscenity, pornography, or other material that could be harmful to minors. So what exactly are children not suppose to see and whose definition of inappropriate are we to use when installing a filter? Material that is considered “obscene” is fairly easy to spot. Obscene material would be any material that is completely off the scale of what is acceptable for a classroom. Obscenity is illegal under that Communications Decency Act. Testing of material to determine if it falls into the obscene category can be done easily. The Communication Decency Act has three guidlelines to use to help in this determination: whether the average person or group, taken as a whole, would find the material offensive, whether the material depicts or describes something in an obviously offensive or sexual way, or whether the material lacks serious literary or scientific value. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the program, insists schools and libraries who receive federal funding to help pay for computers and Internet access must comply with this new law mandating the installation of Web content filters by July 1, 2002, or risk losing their funds.
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The FCC’s rule came as a setback for a number of groups challenging the law’s constitutionality. The ALA wanted to have staff computers not included in this filter, but the FCC denied their request. The ALA, the American Civil Liberties and nearly a dozen other rights groups filed suit to overturn the law on the grounds it suppresses constitutionally protected speech. The groups claim most filtering technologies block material not at all related to pornographic content or hate sites, and most filters let at least some of that content through. Civil liberties groups, some school administrators and library officials have joined forces to oppose the Children’s Internet Protection Act, claiming it violates privacy and constitutional guarantees of free speech. “This is the first time since the development of the local, free public library in the 19th century that the federal government has sought to require censorship in every single town and hamlet in America,” said Chris Hansen, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (American).
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“Even the federal commission appointed to study child safety on the Internet concluded filters are not effective in blocking all content that some may find objectionable, but they do block much useful and constitutionally protected information” (American).
Social conservatives speak well of the act, arguing it will protect children from obscenity on the Internet. “It seems to be the only way minor children are going to be protected from seeing hardcore porn when they do research at a library or school,” said Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families. Critics of the measure say standard filters block access to legitimate sites on AIDS, health, sex education, homosexuality and other topics. “No filtering software successfully differentiates constitutionally protected speech from illegal speech on the Internet (Cyberliberties).
Proponents of the tougher legislation argue filtering software is the only way to ensure federal funds are not used to provide children with access to pornography. Parents and teachers deserve to have a realistic faith that, when they entrust their children to our nation’s schools and libraries, this trust will not be betrayed. But opponents of the plan complain the legislation is a solution in search of a problem. Why, they ask, does Congress think educators and librarians need to be told to protect children from online porn? However, these opponents must come to realize as school enrollment increase, class is increase making it more difficult to keep a watchful eye over all of the students all of the time.
Congress wants the Internet Safety Policy to address hacking, chat rooms, email, and disclosure. Pornography is described to be material that depicts sexually explicit conduct of both minors and adults. Material that is considered harmful to minors is essentially the same as obscene material with the addition that there is room for judgment with respect to minors. of personal information by children and unlawful activities of children while online.
... engage in blocking sites considered unsuitable for children. Some better-known filters that block keywords, phrases, or certain blacklisted sites ... homes, schools, and libraries. A recent survey by SurfWatch showed that nearly all parents whose children have Internet access are ... Not only is anonymous communication another class of constitutionally protected speech, but it is a vital component of ...
Debate also focuses on the reliability of filtering technology, which critics argue could lock out legitimate Web sites. And statistics vary on the extent to which children have been exposed to inappropriate material on the Internet at school. A Consumer Reports test of popular filter software found most allowed access to as many as one in five objectionable Web pages while blocking access to legitimate ones. Filters have blocked Web sites about the movie “Babe,” a film about a pig, and the catering service “Let’s Have an Affair. In some cases, filters block harmless sites merely because their software does not consider the context in which a word or phrase is used. At Intermediate School 93 in Ridgewood, students were researching the election stalemate today when an eighth grader came across a web site that used foul language. It slipped through the board of education’s Internet filter and so did suggestive photos. But most of the time, students are frustrated because the filter limits their resources. One seventh grader wanted to study Tino Martinez. He couldn’t. Same for Jackie Robinson. Also, ancient Olympic games were access denied because the board of education software blocks sports as a subject (American).
These issues should be taken up with the school district itself. They are the ones who determine what will be blocked and can override certain subject areas and words. It is important to keep in mind that some sites use incorrect names or deliberately misspell words for their website so that it can bypass a filter. It is these types of people that children need to be protected from.
Consumer Reports stressed the need for parents and teachers to be the real filters when children and teenagers are using the Internet, particularly considering the latest findings. “Who has the primary responsibility for protecting children when they go online at home and at school? The parents and the teachers of the 26 million U.S. youngsters who surf the Web, that’s who! Although filters are good to have installed on computers, parents, teachers, and all adults need to realize they are full proof. The responsibility must be placed back onto the shoulders of the adult in charge.
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