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Does Internet filtering protect or hinder? Depends on your perspective –

The Internet has made information from around the world immediately accessible, but along with accessibility come concerns over inappropriate content, leading public schools and libraries to filter out certain sites.

“In schools, the Children’s Internet Protection Act [CIPA] creates two classes of students: an advantaged class with unfiltered Internet access at home and a disadvantaged class with only filtered access at schools,” according to a June 2014 study from the American Library Association.

This study suggests that schools and libraries have gone beyond what the 14-year-old federal law says can legally be blocked. Local school and library officials have differing positions on what gets filtered and why, but all appear to go beyond CIPA regulations.

Fencing out knowledge

“What do Hotmail, YouTube, Google Docs, Facebook, and National Geographic have in common?” the study asks. “They offer content and services that millions of Americans use every day … They also may be filtered under CIPA, making them inaccessible to children and adults who rely on Internet access provided by public libraries and schools.”

CIPA is meant to shield Internet users from accessing online images that are considered obscene, contain child pornography or are harmful to minors, meaning images that lack artistic, literary, political or scientific value. Schools and libraries receiving certain federal funds are required to install filters and comply with CIPA.

However, the study says that officials often go beyond these three categories and now block social media, educational sites and text, even though the law says only visual images can be blocked.

This is true for both the Waseca and Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton school districts, whose filtering software blocks entire websites based on what category the site may fall into.

JWP’s Technology Director Bruce Grunzke said the school’s software, WatchGuard, has filter categories such as “sexually explicit, advertisements, violence, chat, games, news (blogs and forums), search, personal, and research (health and medicine)”  though Grunzke has the ability to decide which of these categories to block.

CIPA was created in direct response to court decisions that struck down similar laws on the basis that they violated the First Amendment. To get around this violation, CIPA shifted responsibility for regulating content to schools and libraries and away from the federal government.

However, that subjectivity has allowed “individual attitudes of those in control of the filter [to affect] the application of content filtering,” meaning that school superintendents, technology directors and librarians have a lot of influence on which sites are blocked, the study says.

Grunzke said he prefers that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter be blocked, but based on the suggestion of Superintendent Bill Adams and the school’s Technology Committee, those sites have been unblocked.

“Social media is used for a variety of educational opportunities,” said Adams.

While JWP students can access social media, these sites are blocked in Waseca Public Schools.

CIPA also requires that all computers in public schools and libraries have filters turned on, which means the same content is blocked no matter the age of the user though most can turn off a filter for adults visiting an appropriate site.

The entire Traverse des Sioux library system, of which the Waseca Public Library is a part, typically only blocks pornography and doesn’t block as much as Waseca and JWP schools do. But all three block entire sites instead of just visual images, going beyond the requirements of CIPA.

The Waseca Public Library Board of Directors plans to revise its internet safety policy in September.

Public access

Waseca-Le Sueur Library System Director Stacy Lienemann said there are some downfalls to Internet filtering, the main one being that someone may be trying to visit a legitimate site but too embarrassed to ask staff to turn off a block. She gave the example of sex education or someone researching a medical topic or issue that is blocked, but they’re too shy to ask for the site to be opened.

This is where the two classes of Internet users is created: when someone can or cannot do legitimate research on a public computer because they lack access to the Internet elsewhere.

“The study identified an overreach in the implementation of CIPA — far beyond the requirements and intent of the law — that affects access to information and learning opportunities for both children and adults, and disproportionally impacts those who can benefit most from public internet access: the 60 million Americans without either a home broadband connection or smartphone,” according to the study.

“We have regulars who use it [public internet access] and depend on it,” said Lienemann.

According to Lienemann, in 2013, the Waseca Library had almost 11,800 computer sessions. Last July had almost 1,300 sessions alone.

According to a recent study, 90 percent of JWP students have internet access at home. But that leaves 10 percent of students who depend on school or library computers.

It’s unclear how many Waseca students have internet access outside of schools, but Superintendent Tom Lee said he thinks most students have access, whether with broadband or smartphones.

And for Waseca, that’s a good thing, because its schools currently block a lot, according to Lee, possibly more than any other school in the area.

“We probably block more than we should or need to. Adults tend to want to control,” he said.

But Lee also said that the goal is to only block sites that could be damaging to students.

Protection or hindrance

Lee said the school’s Policy Committee, Technology Committee along with School Board have had conversations about unblocking more sites, like social media, in the future.

“You want to engage in legitimate investigation, but not proselytizing,” he said. For an example, under the violence category, the entire topic of war may be blocked. This means the History Channel’s website could be blocked, which can provide valuable educational material.

If the category of violence was unblocked, a student who may want to learn about genocide during the Holocaust would be able to access this site. But then perhaps a site supporting Neo-Nazis would also be available.

And even though this seems like a legitimate concern, CIPA requires that sites expressing controversial ideas or different political views not be blocked.

“For now, we want to err on the side of protecting kids,” Lee said.

The consequences of over-filtering go further than just creating two classes of students and blocking legitimate educational resources. The study said that over-filtering can also lead to Internet illiteracy.

“Over-filtering … creates barriers to learning and acquiring digital literacy skills that are vital for college and career readiness, as well as for full participation in 21st-century society,” according to the study.

Reach reporter Samantha Maranell at 507-837-5446 or follow her on @WCNsamantha.

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