December 7, 2022

CIPA at 10: Internet Filtering Excessive, Study Finds | ALA Midwinter Meeting




Helen Adams, Kirsten Batch, Martin Garnar, and Christopher Harris
during the ALA Midwinter panel on the state of CIPA.

A decade after the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) went into effect, its implementation in schools and public libraries is problematic and the scale of Internet filtering is excessive, noted panelists during the session “Revisiting The Children’s Internet Protection Act: 10 Years Later” at the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Midwinter Meeting.

CIPA was put into place with the goal of protecting minors from Internet pornography and images deemed obscene and harmful to youth. By law, schools and libraries must have certain Internet filters in place in order to receive some federal funding.

However, CIPA’s “over-reach in implementation far beyond the requirements or intent of the law,” said moderator Helen Adams, online instructor at Mansfield University, in her opening remarks. This over-filtering results in restricting material otherwise acceptable within CIPA’s purview, limiting the information accessible to the 60 million Americans without broadband or smartphones who may rely on schools and libraries for Internet access, she added.

The findings were the result of a study undertaken by ALA’s Office for Internet Technology Policy (OITP) and Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) with support from Google. Aspects of the executive summary, “Fencing Out Knowlege: Impacts of CIPA 10 Years Later,” including its four recommendations for future study of CIPA, were summarized during the panel by Kirsten Batch, consultant to the OITP.

“What do Hotmail, Google, YouTube, Google Docs, Facebook, and National Geographic have in common?” the study asks. “They offer content and services that millions of Americans used every day to communicate, share content, and seek information. They also may be filtered under [CIPA].”

The session focused on the distinct hurdles of filtering in both public and school librarians, the problem of “creeping” filtering, as well as how filtering may particularly impact disenfranchised youth and adults. In addition, panelists discussed issues around “black box” filtering systems that do not specify what they filter and the challenge of constantly updating these systems to keep up with new Internet content.

Individual schools, libraries, and library systems have flexibility in how they interpret CIPA and how far they go in filtering. So to some extent, CIPA is open to local variances, panelists noted. However, since more low-income areas may depend on the e-rate discounts that require filtering, institutions in those areas may preemptively block material more heavily, resulting in a greater limitation on what their patrons and students can access.

Panelists also observed that that due to the dynamic nature of the Internet, filtering systems often become outdated quickly, as new sites crop up that may bypass existing filtering specifications.

An online nursing exam is among those often inaccessible sites, Batch said. “Studies and anecdotes recount numerous examples of blocked online resources [on topics] ranging from those dealing with war and genocide to safer sex and public health,” according to the study.

Discussing the strictures of filtering in public libraries vs schools, panelist Christopher Harris, school library system coordinator for the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership and School Library Journal “Next Big Thing” columnist, reminded the audience that “schools must act in loco parentis,” meaning that by law, every action a school takes must be in the best interest of children in the absence of their parents. Public libraries do not have such mandates.

“I say it’s probably good we have filters in schools,” Harris commented. “There’s bad stuff we don’t want even accidentally to come up.”

However, schools often block more than they need to, Harris said. While a youth downloading porn from a public library computer would likely just be told to leave, such an incident in a school setting could result in tabloid headlines, he noted.

“Porn could be brought into school on paper” before the Internet, Harris added, emphasizing that then and now, students will find a way to access material that interests them.

Batch said that excessive filtering occurs in schools because “we’re seeing a creep to manage issues of cyberbullying and classroom management” as well as what CIPA requires. This results  in obstructing social media and sites that students might use to create content as well as access it.

The panelists and audience discussed the pros and cons of “black box” filters designed by companies that don’t specify in detail what they block, as opposed to filters designed by schools or libraries. “For libraries, filters are black boxes that lack objectivity and transparency,” according to the study. However, there are potential legal issues for schools that design their own filters instead of accepting ready-made black box software from an outside company or third party.

“Once you start blocking something you become more liable for anything that comes through,” Harris said. “If pornography gets through, you have a higher level of liability.” However, if a third party designed the filter, the school is less responsible.

Further discussing possible open-source “grey box” software that could spell out what it blocks and could be tailored to individual schools, panelist Martin Garnar, professor and reference services librarian at Regis University in Denver, noted that “a more transparent box would allow kids access to porn sites,” meaning that he believes kids could hack and discover the content of those boxes.

Panelists concluded that there are no easy answers to the problem of over-filtering and the resulting inequity of information access. Batch summarized the study’s four recommendations for further research on CIPA: increase awareness of the spectrum of choices regarding filtering,  develop a toolkit for schools and libraries that focuses on current research and best practices,  establish a digital repository for existing research on CIPA, and conduct more research evaluating how filtering impacts students.

Panelists strongly agreed that in addition to more balanced filtering, students must be better versed in how to handle the allures and dangers of an unfiltered system. “Students aren’t receiving assistance to navigate their ethical choices,” Batch said, noting that kids will experience less-restrictive filtering once in college.

When the efficacy of a possible move to try to roll back CIPA was raised by an audience member, Garnar noted that there has been talk of pursuing a “repeal.” However, others observed that such a confrontation could backfire, with a renewed spotlight on filtering possibly resulting in stronger regulations.

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss ( is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.


  1. The panel discussion gives a one sided report that neglects the many librarians who are completely satisfied that their libraries have installed Internet filters. No longer do they get sexually harassed at work. No longer do they need to deal with the problems caused by porn nor fear their porn viewing patrons nor their own management. Yet the panel claims filters are not working. Sure, by leaving out the whole truth, you can find the sliver where filters are not working up to modern standards, sometimes intentionally. Do you all realize even Barbara Jones of ALA’s OIF admitted filters work, work well, no longer block health related information, and claiming they block breast cancer is an old excuse? She only admitted this after being forced into it by the library director who won the Washington state and federal cases that librarians need not unblock porn even upon request.

    Did the panel include any librarians who are very happy with Internet filtering? Did the panel include anyone at all with any view that does not toe the ALA line?

    So how valuable is such a panel, except for propaganda purposes?

    The US Supreme Court already addressed the issue of overbreadth. The attempt to reargue the issue based on overbreadth and to claim filtering is therefore wrong is merely an attempt to overturn the case ALA lost in the Supreme Court, to mislead communities about the law.

    And the claimed concern for equity of access is faked. In reality, for example, the ALA works to block access to information parents and teachers could use to determine the appropriateness of material for children. ALA removed a Common Sense Media link with book ratings about sexual explicitness from its Great Sites site, then a YALSA Intellectual Freedom committee crowed how it got that link removed from the ALSC site then blacklisted Common Sense Media throughout ALA generally, all state library associations, and all ALA accredited library schools. Equity of access? Great concept, but ALA uses it to promote a political goal, with censorship and blacklisting, no less, not to promote equity of access.

  2. Filtering being used to block things that don’t necessarily need to be filtered is real. You’ll see schools that block many streaming video sites with perfectly legitimate educational value because of bandwidth issues. You’ll see schools block social media sites (as mentioned) to deal with cyberbullying issues – after all – if they can’t access it on school grounds, the schools lose some sense of liability for it happening. These bury real issues though that we need to address with students. Inequity of access isn’t quite how I’d describe it, it’s more like abuse of filtering which is slightly different than overfiltering.

    Overfiltering is catching stuff you don’t mean to in order to block the really bad stuff – abuse of filtering is filtering stuff that doesn’t fall near the boundaries of being dangerous to students and that has legitimate uses and is blocked for reasons not having to do with their content.

    The Supreme Court case you mention only applies insofar as that Congress CAN compel libraries to filter things and only visual images at that – text is protected speech. However, the USSC held up CIPA as ok because “Assuming that such erroneous blocking presents constitutional difficulties, any such concerns are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled. When a patron encounters a blocked site, he need only ask a librarian to unblock it or (at least in the case of adults) disable the filter.”.

    We find in many venues this is NOT true – I have yet to see a school district that has provided that filtering be disabled on a per terminal basis based on need, or that we have allowed students to access information freely because they established a bona fide need that is protected per this “CIPA also expressly authorizes library officials to “disable” a filter altogether “to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” 20 U.S.C. § 9134(f)(3) (disabling permitted for both adults and minors); 47 U.S.C. § 254(h)(6)(D) (disabling permitted for adults).”

    Should not filtering software that doesn’t give this capacity not be allowed under CIPA? It appears the court would agree with that.

    You also fail to address that plenty of patrons and children DO find ways to access porn as the filtering software is far from infallible and there are numerous ways around it. There is no comprehensive study that addresses whether filtering does more harm than good which is one of the recommendations – that’s an honest answer as the spectrum of choices is so large.

    The part of CIPA that’s so contentious is that the government wants to fund internet access to provide an equitable field so that people can meet the needs of themselves, their families, and their communities but they don’t want to fund access to pornography – that’s the whole basis of the Supreme Court ruling is that the government does not have a vested interested in providing that access, that they can tailor a program and direct funding to avoid access to that “speech”.

    The equity of access issue doesn’t have so much to do with the breast cancer search – it has to do with that we actually don’t really know what’s being blocked, or why it’s being blocked, and we don’t know how bad the problem is really because of the black box.

    As for your side swipe at the ALA’s stance on Common Sense Media, I’m not so familiar with it, but, based on what you say, the ALA does not traditionally like flagging or labeling text for numerous reasons – mainly the subjectivity of it. We address issues with teens and children by designating sections free of those things we deem worrisome while not obstructing their access to ‘adult’ areas and without labeling the books. I could see why they would remove a link and even go through the black listing process – because the site endorsed something that flies directly against how libraries operate and that goes against the best practices of running libraries.

    That’s not censorship by failing to teach about Common Sense Media in a library school (how many others don’t we teach) – and it’s not like they filtered the site at all libraries – what does that even mean to black list it with all state library associations and within the ALA? Just by removing links to it?

    The final verdict here imo should be that filtering is shades of grey – it’s good in some ways and bad in others. It does meet a very real need, and comes with very real costs. Only further study and figuring out how to function in these filtered environments will tell us what problems we have since we have only anecdotal evidence, and, to figure out whether filtering is having unintended effects that we can’t easily measure but impact patrons negatively.

    You also claim that the panel is biased against filtering “Yet the panel claims filters are not working” – they simply claim that balance is needed – they don’t call for a repeal of filtering. Moreso they’re referring to instances of filtering creep and also filtering resources that are genuinely useful to patrons and are blocked even though they are not remotely pornographic (which is what CIPA calls to block).

    There isn’t a hard and fast conclusion we can reach is what I get from their presentation – simply that we need more hard research to figure out what’s actually going on, on a large scale, and to otherwise promote what we believe to be best practices in the meantime to maintain overall equity of access while maintaining a filtered environment and gather information on what we know of CIPA and its implementation for further study and to educate the public on it.

    None of that sounds so radical as what you propose sir and far less devious than “faking claims”.

    • “As for your side swipe at the ALA’s stance on Common Sense Media, I’m not so familiar with it….”

      It is not a “side swipe.” It is a fact. I am just reporting the fact. Become familiar with it. The reliable source for this fact is the ALA itself. Take a look at how ALA censors and blacklists at will to thwart people from learning about the potential for sexually inappropriate material in books for children:

      I realize the vast majority of librarians do not support ALA leadership’s use of its power to sexualize children per Illinois ACLU board member Judith Krug’s original change in ALA policy to no longer keep children from inappropriate material, so I am certain the above linked document, from the “Intellectual Freedom Committee” no less, will be an eye opener to many librarians. So much for ALA’s claim to support intellectual freedom. Hopefully at some point the silent majority of librarians will stop Krug’s ACLU policy from harming so many nationwide. Only then will we stop seeing documents like the one linked above proving ALA censorship and blacklisting of efforts to fully inform people about the sexualized content of material for children.