It's every school technology coordinator's bad dream: A young student
sits down in front of a networked classroom PC to do some research for a
class assignment about the presidency. Opening a web browser to go to the
White House web site, she types www.whitehouse.com, unaware that
the web site housed at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. exists in the .gov
-- not .com -- domain. The mistake is minor, but what happens next
isn't: This student's online field trip to the Oval Office is about to be
rudely hijacked to a commercial pornography site featuring graphic photos
of sex acts on its front page.
The anecdote might be hypothetical, but the "White House" porn
site is real. Vendors of Internet filtering and blocking software are fond
of telling this story because it illustrates how easily children can be
inadvertently exposed to online pornography. In declaring the Communications
Decency Act unconstitutional last June, the U.S. Supreme Court placed the
onus on schools to shield students from online indecency, and makers of
so-called censorware have been quick to respond.
Their solution is simple: Buy our software, and your students will be
safeguarded from exposure to pornography, hate speech, violent imagery,
and other inappropriate content on the Internet.
But vocal opponents of censorware see a different picture. They see schools
abdicating their supervisory role to software companies that are ill-equipped
to discern which sites are educationally appropriate and -- in some cases
-- are motivated by conservative agendas to block students from liberal
points of view. In addition to blocking access to a great deal of educationally
valuable information, critics say, censorware products provide no guarantee
against porn or other truly objectionable material because the vendors can't
hope to keep tabs on a web that -- by some estimates -- doubles in size
every six months.
In the midst of the spirited debate over the use of censorware, however,
one consensus among school technology leaders emerges: Schools should consider
their goals and options carefully and conduct hands-on evaluations of several
competing products before making a judgment about whether -- or how -- to
filter Internet access for students.
How filters work
Censorware products typically use a combination of several filtering
and blocking strategies, and school officials can often choose which of
these strategies to enable or disable. The most unsophisticated weapon is
keyword blocking, which compares the text of web pages and other Internet
content against a list of undesirable words and then either removes the
words or blocks the offending page altogether.
The simplicity of the keyword blocking approach can easily lead to cases
of mistaken identity, though. On the lookout for words such as "XXX,"
"sex," and "dykes," censorware products have blocked
web pages such as those for Superbowl XXX, Mars Explorer, and the University
of Kansas Medical Center's Archie R. Dykes Library, to name just three examples.
One product, CYBERsitter, yanks offending words from web pages without
providing a clue to the reader that the text has been altered. The mangled
text that results from this intervention might change the meaning and intent
of a sentence dramatically. For example, because "homosexual"
is in the list of CYBERsitter's forbidden words, the sentence, "The
Catholic church is opposed to all homosexual marriages" appears to
the user as, "The Catholic church is opposed to all marriages."
(Brian Milburn, CEO of Solid Oak Software, the maker of CYBERsitter, declined
to talk to Electronic School for this story.)
A more sophisticated approach, used by many vendors, is to block individual
web pages by specific URLs. Typically, vendors use automated web crawlers
to search for suspicious pages. Human reviewers then look at each page in
turn and rate it accordingly. For example, Cyber Patrol, a popular product
that also licenses its database to several other vendors, rates sites according
to the following categories: violence/profanity, partial nudity, full nudity,
sexual acts, gross depictions, intolerance, satanic or cult, drugs and drug
culture, militant/extremist, sex education, questionable/illegal and gambling,
and alcohol and tobacco.
Most vendors allow schools to pick and choose which categories they wish
to block, but none permit educators to view the full list of blocked sites,
which vendors encrypt to prevent misappropriation by competitors or students.
Schools have no way of knowing whether a particular site is blocked -- or
why -- without trying a site and seeing what happens. This is an important
limitation, many educators say, because vendors often incorrectly categorize
"We have about a dozen people looking for sites," says Susan
Getgood of Microsystems Software, the maker of Cyber Patrol. As is typical
for the industry, Microsystems Software does not require that its site raters
have backgrounds in library science, but they must be either a parent or
a teacher, Getgood says. With the aid of automated web crawlers, it's "highly
doable" for Cyber Patrol to keep track of bad sites, she says. "But
no site is added to the list unless it has been viewed by a human being,"
Yet at the time this was written, Electronic School discovered by simple
trial and error that Cyber Patrol blocked access to the "Educators'
Home Page for Tobacco Use Prevention" on a web site run by the Maryland
Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Local and Family Health Administration.
On the other hand, Cyber Patrol allowed access to a web site called "How
to Tell Right From Wrong," featuring half a dozen graphic photos of
aborted fetuses -- presumably because the Cyber Patrol reviewers were unaware
of the page's existence.
Critics argue that these twin drawbacks are inherent flaws in censorware
products: Some sites that should be accessible get blocked, and some sites
that should be blocked manage to slip through. Vendors respond that schools
can add to or delete from the list of blocked sites as they see fit or as
need arises. But some educators wonder whether a student is likely to ask
a teacher to unblock a site that deals with a personally sensitive issue
such as teen pregnancy, abuse, homosexuality, or sexually transmitted disease.
Indeed, students might not realize that such sites exist.
Ratings are another approach to blocking. The Platform for Internet Content
Selection (PICS) protocol, which has been adopted by Microsoft's Internet
Explorer web browser and will likely be adopted by Netscape Navigator as
well, has enabled several rating systems. The RSACi rating system (developed
by the Recreational Software Advisory Council) and the SafeSurf rating system
depend on Internet publishers to rate their own web pages, while the Net
Shepherd rating system is based on ratings by third parties.
PICS is unlikely to be a realistic solution for schools anytime soon,
though, as only a small proportion of web sites have been rated so far.
Critics say the self-rating systems lack incentive, take too much time and
effort, and are not applicable to many sites. Even the White House, which
promotes web ratings as a means to protect children, had not rated their
own site as this article was written. The MSNBC news site recently abandoned
an attempt at self-rating as unworkable.
Third-party rating systems have problems, too, because any system that
depends on strangers to apply subjective ratings to a vast universe of web
pages runs the risk of being out of touch with local community norms. When
Electronic School performed a sample search for the word "breast"
using an online demo of the Net Shepherd product, three of the hits were
links to photos of nude breasts.
"It would appear that the opinion of the person who reviewed the
site is that these images are not offensive to them," said Ron Warris,
vice president of technology for Net Shepherd, Inc., when told of this result.
Warris added that he would have the pages rerated.
"You have to settle for an approximate match" when relying
on a third-party rating system, says Paul Resnick, an associate professor
at the University of Michigan's School of Information and the chairman of
the PICS working group at the World Wide Web Consortium, the MIT-based organization
that authored the PICS standard. "That is the nature of relying on
someone else's judgement about material."
Censorware can be installed in several ways. Client-based censorware
is designed to be installed and configured on each computer for which Internet
access is to be restricted. Periodic updates of the list of blocked sites
must be downloaded manually to each computer, which can quickly become a
large administrative task. (Some client-based products do allow updates
to be performed over a local-area network, however.)
For schools or districts with a large installed base of networked computers,
proxy server-based products can be a more manageable and technically sophisticated
solution. In this configuration, the blocking takes place on a special server
that is located "upstream" from the classroom computers on the
school network and that updates itself automatically from the vendor's online
database of blocked sites. A proxy server also has the added benefit of
speeding up access times by storing frequently accessed pages in a cache
Using proxy-based filtering in combination with a network operating system
that assigns each user a logon ID and password, such as Windows NT Server,
schools can set up different filtering criteria for different groups of
students. This solution can go a long way toward age-appropriate filtering,
for example by allowing only high school students to access sites that have
been placed by the filtering vendor in the "safe sex" category.
But the proxy server solution has drawbacks, too: Each computer's web
browser must be manually configured to direct its requests through the proxy
server, a time-consuming task when there are a large number of networked
computers to set up. And wily students might be able to route their browsers
around the proxy server. To prevent this, some school districts use a firewall
in combination with a proxy server. A firewall -- a hardware or software
filter that guards the intersection of the school's network and the Internet
-- can be configured to disallow any traffic that does not pass through
the proxy server. This solution also provides the side benefit of protection
against hacker intrusion from the outside.
To block or not to block
How many school districts are using Internet filtering and blocking software?
Exact figures are hard to come by, but in a recent poll of 295 teachers,
technology directors, school board members, and other educators attending
the national Technology+Learning conference, 51 percent said they were currently
using censorware for all or some students in their district.
Not surprisingly, educators are divided on the efficacy and appropriateness
of the use of Internet blocking and filtering software in schools.
"Using a computer that had Surfwatch installed on it, I was able
to download information on how to build a bomb, how to contact a satanic
cult, how to sabotage various systems within a building, read up on neo-Nazi
propaganda, and learn how to commit crimes using cellular telephones,"
says Bill Lowenburg, a librarian and technology trainer in the Stroudsburg
(Pa.) Area School District. "On the other hand, I was not able to access
the English Server at Carnegie Mellon University, because it apparently
had 'objectionable' content on it."
Yet many school technology coordinators argue that the inexact science
of Internet filtering and blocking is a reasonable trade-off for greater
peace of mind. Given the political reality in many school districts, they
say, the choice often comes down to censorware or no Internet access at
"It would be politically disastrous for us not to filter,"
says Joe Hill, supervisor of math and technology at the Rockingham County
(Va.) Public Schools. "All the good network infrastructure we've installed
would come down with the first instance of an elementary school student
accessing some of the absolutely raunchy sites out there. Parents trust
that schools are safe sites for their children in all ways, and that includes
the Internet. It is much better to err on the side of caution in blocking
Kerry Day, technology specialist for the North Sanpete School District
in Mount Pleasant, Utah, agrees.
"A conservative group called the Eagle Forum recently tried to persuade
the state legislature to cut off all Internet access to public schools,"
Day says. Although that effort was not successful, he says, "it wouldn't
take too many incidents for them to have enough ammunition to succeed."
Politics aside, schools and communities need to carefully consider all
their options when making decisions about implementing censorware, says
Karen Schneider, a government librarian and library-press columnist. Last
year, Schneider headed up The Internet Filter Assessment Project (TIFAP),
a six-month-long evaluation of more than a dozen censorware products by
a group of librarians scattered across the Internet. The TIFAP study --
which provided the basis for Schneider's newly released book, A Practical
Guide to Internet Filters -- concluded that filters hamper legitimate information
gathering unless administrators disable keyword blocking and all blocking
categories except for those that cover pornographic sites.
"I try to tell people, 'Slow down and think carefully about the
impact of what you're doing," Schneider says. "Give these tools
as much scrutiny as you would any other purchase, because they do affect
what information is available. And if you're looking for guarantees -- there
The concept of local control of curriculum through the process of neighborhood
citizens serving on school boards is a long-standing and cherished tradition
in American public education. But many argue that with censorware in place,
school districts give up ultimate control of what students can and can't
"The problem with filtering is that you let one group or organization
set your agenda," says Carol Simpson, a library technology administrator
in the Mesquite, Texas, public schools. "When filters block animal-rights
sites because of 'gross depictions' but not antiabortion sites for the same
reason, we're not dealing with a pornography filter, we're dealing with
a political filter. I tell people, 'Do you want some software company in
San Francisco deciding what your kids can see?'"
The program that has come under the most fire from free-speech advocates
over the past year is CYBERsitter, which blocks the sites for the National
Organization for Women as well as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation. Until recently, the program also blocked the web site of a teen
anticensorship group called Peacefire, which is critical of CYBERsitter's
Peacefire's webmaster, Benjamin Jenkins, is a 17-year-old senior at Community
High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. The school is involved in a project with
the University of Michigan to develop "a new way of teaching science,
which includes computer technology highly integrated into the curriculum,"
Jenkins says. As a sophomore, Jenkins was hired by the university to maintain
the computers and network involved in the program. Internet use at the school
has successfully relied on education and enforcement of an Acceptable Use
Policy, Jenkins says: "Students are informed of the tentative nature
of our connection to the Internet--they respect that, and behave responsibly
"We have always felt that filtering software is not only ineffective,
but also a violation of the trust between students and staff," Jenkins
adds. "Unfortunately, most of the censorware companies block anything
controversial, not just pornography. I find it very discouraging that this
includes information like suicide prevention, safe sex, and gay youth resources."
Indeed, it is at the high school level that the most serious free-speech
issues arise over the use of censorware, says Ann Beeson, a national staff
attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. As counsel for plaintiffs
in ACLU v. Reno, Beeson was a primary architect of the landmark case in
which the Supreme Court last year declared the federal Communications Decency
"The basic problem is that the filters aren't perfect and they tend
to overblock," Beeson says. Although the extent to which students have
First Amendment rights is not clear, Beeson says, older minors have a more
clearly defined need for information on topics such as safer sex, AIDS,
and gay and lesbian issues. And even if the use of censorware doesn't put
a school in a worse position legally, Beeson says, it does create a false
sense of security.
"As a practical matter, schools are not worse off for trying to
screen," agrees Jonathan D. Wallace, a New York-based attorney and
software executive and author of the book Sex, Laws and Cyberspace. "But
the single most important thing is that filtering software is a placebo.
These issues can be handled perfectly by a teacher standing in the classroom,
seeing what's on the screen. It's complete self-deception to think we can
make a software program that can make these kinds of decisions for us."
And as for the hypothetical case of the student who mistakenly ends up
at the "White House" porn site? Carol Simpson puts it this way:
"That's what the 'Back' button on the web browser is for."
Lars Kongshem is an associate editor and webmaster of Electronic School and
The American School Board Journal.