When Schools' Internet Filters Follow You Home

What message does this sign send?

Protecting Children on the (Schools’) Internet

Schools and libraries that receive federal E-rate funding (a program that helps underwrite their telecommunications and Internet costs) are required by CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, to create an Internet safety policy and filter or block certain kinds of websites. The law only demands these filters address obscenity, child pornography and sites that are “harmful to minors,” but schools interpret this mandate in a variety of ways. Some ban all sorts of websites: video streaming sites (including YouTube and by extension Khan Academy), peer-to-peer networks (including Skype and Dropbox), and social media networks (Twitter, Facebook, Ning, Blogger, Tumblr). They ban these sites for students, which often means they’re unavailable to teachers as well.

CIPA was signed in to law in 2001. That’s worth highlighting, I think, when we talk about “children’s Internet protection” as the Internet and computing were very different a decade ago. For a little perspective: 2001 was the year before Maine’s historic one-to-one laptop initiative was underway. It was a year before a young Mark Zuckerberg entered Harvard. It was three years after Sergei Brin and Larry Page founded Google, but three years before the company went public. It was three years before Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Web 2.0.” Apple introduced the first iPod in 2001; but it was six more years before the iPhone and nine before the iPad hit the market. Technology and society have changed substantially in the intervening years; CIPA has not.

Far more schools do have Internet access now than did in 2001. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 77% of public schools had Internet access in 2000; 100% do today. But it isn’t simply that Internet has become ubiquitous on campuses; students are increasingly going online through wireless rather than wired connetions and doing so via mobile devices.

Yet the perception that students are still in danger when doing so persists. With the advent of mobile computing, with the proliferation of cellphone ownership (student cellphone ownership specifically) and with the explosion of social networking, we’re witnessing CIPA – an eleven year old piece of legislation, remember – be invoked left and right.

Case Study: Colorado

Take this story from Colorado Springs, for example:

Manitou Springs School District 14 purchased 500 new Apple iPad 2 tablet computers for 5th through 8th grade students to use this school year. The internet allows homework to be assigned, completed and graded paperlessly. However, that connectivity also risks exposing students to harmful content on the web.

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his child’s privacy, believes it is way too easy to bypass the districts web filters and access potentially harmful sites. He demonstrated for us how students could potentially piggyback onto unsecured wifi networks without ever leaving school property.

“It’s the perfect set up to have a completely anonymous online presence that neither school officials nor parents nor law enforcement could ever really reconstruct,” he said.

That parent and about two dozen others petitioned the Manitou Springs school board to implement a stronger internet safety policy.

D–14 uses web filters that are installed on their server but not on the iPads themselves. Technically students could access the web, unfiltered, while they are away from school.

The school district insisted that it did not need to filter the devices directly and as part of its Internet safety policy, it required students to abide by these same rules when they were using the devices at home. The district also helped interested parents in installing filters on their own networks at home.

But this response was unsatisfactory to the parents and petitioners in question, who might have found a powerful ally in another Colorado Spring resident, State Senator Keith King. He has introduced legislation now pending in Colorado that would mandate schools install filters directly onto all Internet-capable devices so that a minor can be “protected,” in the bill’s language, “FROM ANY LOCATION.”

Clarifying CIPA?

What does it mean to protect children on the Internet today? Technologically and philosophically – how do we do so? What is the role of schools? What is the role of parents? Whose accounts are monitored – Teachers? Students? Parents? What happens now with the advent of one-to-one computer initiatives and BYOD (bring your own device)? Will we filter schools’ networks? Or will we install filtering software directly onto the devices? Will we control the posts and searches and online transactions that occur at school? Or will we monitor teachers and students at home as well? Where does CIPA begin and end? Where does Internet monitoring begin and end? Where do Internet safety policies begin and end? (All these questions are why you create an Internet safety policy in the first place, I should say.)

The law is clear… except, well honestly, it isn’t.

Last fall, the school district in my home town of Casper, Wyoming opted for the first time to install filtering software directly on to the laptops it has been issuing students for several years. It did so in order to block students’ access to social networking sites, and the decision to do so was made in part as a response to parental concerns about what students were doing with school-issued laptops when the kids were at home.

So I asked the FCC to weigh in. On my reading of CIPA at least, it’s the on-campus network that schools are required to filter, and as long as the schools aren’t paying for the Internet at home (say, via 3G access on school-issued devices), then CIPA doesn’t apply. But “it’s a grey area,” I was told by a spokesperson. The FCC promised that it would clarify language about how CIPA governs one-to-one initiatives. Six months later, I’m still waiting to hear news on the follow-up.

Controlling Students (and Teachers) Online

Meanwhile we’re seeing more and more schools and districts and cities and states and courts weigh in with their own interpretations of how we should monitor and control students’ access to the Web. Although this loosely falls under the purview of CIPA – that is, the requirement to craft an Internet safety policy – it’s clear that many schools opt to filter far more than is required under that law. It is their discretion to do so.

Add to that, the new pressures to create policies around social media, and the question doesn’t just become about access to the Web but about behaviors while on it. In March, a high school senior in Garrett, Indiana was expelled for tweeting a series of F-bombs (the Tweets were sent at 2:30 am from his own home, the student insists). Last week, Portland, Maine announced its school district would for the first time in the state’s decade-long one-to-one laptop program, install filters on the devices it issues students so that they’d be unable to access sites like Facebook or YouTube whether they were at school or at home.

These policies are beginning to govern teachers’ interactions online too. Last week, New York City laid out new social media guidelines curbing teachers’ ability to interact with students online, demanding teachers separate their personal and professional social media identities and ask permission from their supervisors to pursue the latter – to set up a blog, a Twitter account, and the like. Again, it’s all ostensibly about protecting the children on the Internet.

What can students and teachers read and write and watch and say online? What happens when they do these things from school networks on school devices? What happens when they do so at school with their own devices? What happens when they do so from home with school-issued devices? What happens when these interactions occur on devices and networks not controlled by schools, but occur nonetheless between the people – the students and teachers – that schools feel compelled to control?

Net Freedom / Net Surveillance

I’ve started reading Evgeny Morozov’s Net Delusion this past week. The book’s been out over a year; but its critiques are hardly out-of-date. They’ve been nagging at me all week – Morozov’s blistering dissection of our utopian desires for Net-enabled democracy and freedom, his arguments about our refusal to recognize the ways in which power actually operates – online or off. His focus is on the tensions of liberation and lockdown in global politics; but the politics of the US education system would make as interesting a study, I think.

Indeed, there’s so much rhetoric about the transformative power of technology in the classroom right now. And yet right alongside the pronouncements of "disruption" and "revolution" are arguments for putting into place all sorts of new surveillance policies – policies that monitor what school networks and school devices and school employees and students can access.

And whether the FCC bothers to clarify CIPA or not, it’s clear that many school districts are ready to extend this surveillance – all in the service of protecting children on the Internet, of course – from the classroom and the library and into the home.

Photo credits: John Manoogian



Tags: , , , ,