Web Filter Is a Double-Edged Sword

At every school across the Anchorage School District (ASD), students and teachers alike face frustration as they attempt to access a web site that is blocked by the web filter. Most students do not realize the reasoning behind the web filter, or the amount of effort that is put into maintaining it.

On December 21, 2000 the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was signed into law and on June 23, 2003 CIPA was deemed constitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

Since then internet filtering has become prevalent in public and school use computers. A familiar sight greets those students and teachers every time they attempt to access a blocked web site: the IBOSS web filter page listing the reasons why the web site is blocked.

Schools and libraries that receive federal funding are required to comply with CIPA and choose a web filtering system in order to continue receiving funding.

There has been much debate over the ethics behind these web filtering systems and how they are being implemented in schools.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, “The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was enacted to address concerns about children’s access to obscene or harmful content over the Internet. CIPA imposes certain requirements (a web filtering system) on schools or libraries that receive discounts for Internet access or internal connections.”

The web filtering system that the Anchorage School District (ASD) uses is called IBOSS and according to Charles McCubrey, Diamond’s Technology coordinator,  “We have more of an open approach to the internet. We kind of assume everything is good until proven otherwise.

“New web pages come on all the time and they are not taken down until IBOSS figures out that it’s a bad website and then it will get put on the blacklist.”

Once a site is on the blacklist, it is inaccessible to students.

McCubrey said, “There are very few areas that teachers can’t get to, especially if they bypass the filter.”

The web filtering system used by the Anchorage School District complies completely with the requirements laid out by CIPA. However, one could also argue that the ASD system, IBOSS, goes “above and beyond” in the line of duty.

Along with filtering out pictures that are obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors (as is required by CIPA), the IBOSS system also filters out all social media sites, YouTube, anything to do with guns, drugs or alcohol as well as a plethora of other search terms and web sites.

McCubrey said, “Trying to mandate every single word that’s appropriate in one area but inappropriate in nine others would be really difficult, to legislate, and to have someone in charge of.”

Ross Johnson, a member of the ASD Web Filter Committee, said “We can allow more openness for middle school, high school kids and then block more for the elementary school kids. It’s just there’s a lot out there on the internet and to be able to go through every single site is very difficult.”

In order to simplify filtering into a manageable task, the school district uses cost benefit analysis on how many times a word is going to be used appropriately versus how many times it’s going to be used inappropriately.

This is where the issue gets complicated.

ASD has to balance a fine line between protecting students from harmful and inappropriate material, while at the same time not impeding their First Amendment rights, or ability to research and learn. ASD also has to take into account parent wishes and what resources are needed by teachers in order to teach.

John Trampush, also a member of the ASD Web Filter Committee, said, “The biggest problem with the whole thing is leaving it as open as possible, especially for older students, and being responsible to parental wishes of elementary kids.

“We’re not trying to limit controversy or political debate, we’re just trying to keep certain sites that we know parents don’t want their kids having access to especially when they’re young, so that the kids have the right exposure at school. When requests are made to keep certain types of information away from young people you’ve got to treat it seriously.”

Lem Wheeles, a parent of young children as well as a Social Studies teacher at Dimond, had a similar opinion.

According to Wheeles, “Schools have a challenging position, especially with younger students, but even with teenage students, to provide them with safety and structure the way that their parents would at home.

“I wouldn’t let my kids look at those things at home because it’s not appropriate at their age. And it’s not a matter of political censorship or censorship of ideas, it’s a matter of what’s age appropriate,” Wheeles Said.

Wheeles went on to say, “There are times when there are issues that I think are very pertinent and very appropriate for students to be looking at in an educational setting, like gun rights and gun control or drug policies.

“Students are looking up, or trying to look up, legitimate articles and research and information on these things and because the word ‘gun’ appears, the word ‘drug’ appears, that kicks it out in the filter and stops it even if they’re not looking for something that is gratuitous or inappropriate, and that’s frustrating.”

Teachers have wide and varied opinions on how open the internet should be to students at school.

McCubrey said, “Some teachers want it wide open and some would consider that the wild, wild west, too free, but I think those that want it tighter, there are too many moving targets to implement the type of system that we have and be tighter at the same time without going to a whitelist type of system.”

McCubrey explained, “A whitelist approach means that things have to be added to what you can go to rather than taken away.”

Whitelists are common systems of internet filtering and much more restrictive for the students, as well as the teachers.

Overall, teachers seem to be satisfied with the way the current system works. The IBOSS System has some issues but they are not insurmountable. Teachers can override when they need to and students can request that a site be permanently unlocked.

As to the sites that get through the filter, according to Trampush, “The filter does a good job as a first act. There’s always going to be issues that we only become aware of when somebody brings it to our attention.”

McCubrey shared similar thoughts. “We can’t rely on technology to do all the filtering for us. Teachers still have to monitor. We still have to be diligent in the classroom so we can’t expect that IBOSS is going to filter one hundred percent out.”

In the end,  the best protection that is available to students on the internet is common sense and access to education.